Originally an aircraft used for passenger transit, and then subsequently for weapons delivery and surveillance by the German military during the First World War, airships are now being transitioned towards the logistics market as industry touts lighter-than-air (LTA) technology for cargo applications.
Unlike other types of aircraft that have also inevitably seen challenges over their lifetimes yet still remain relevant, airships are currently not operational in roles other than advertising and the odd nostalgic tourist ride.
The industry has again found itself in its infancy, looking to overcome an array of challenges, including: mastering and certifying the technology; defining the requirement; raising sufficient funds to bring the aircraft to market; ensuring it saves the user money; and increasing the demand for this aircraft type as a replacement for other vehicle types.
The military – which previously sponsored the gamut of developments of this type – has seemingly taken a step back and is now observing how the commercial cargo market progresses, and by its own admittance, the airship industry is developing slowly.
The move away from government-sponsored developments has also raised the issue of funding. Programmes are now being sponsored by private investors, and subsequently raising the funds required can take much longer.
“For 60 years people have been trying to figure out how to make airships into efficient and economical cargo airships,” Igor Pasternak, chief executive, chief engineer and founder of Worldwide Aeros Corp, says. “We expect it will be a big global market, with plenty of opportunity for operators reliant on infrastructure and hub-and-spoke operations.”
Pasternak adds that the global market “is desperate” for a logistics solution that can bridge sealift and airlift in terms of cost-per-tonne mile and delivery speed. Airships are expected to reduce fuel consumption, lessen environmental impacts and operational manpower requirements, doing this while eliminating infrastructure development costs and delays.
Worldwide Aeros Corp
A tainted reputation – albeit one from 70 years ago – is another argument for the delayed development, namely the 1937 Hindenburg disaster when an airship blew up.
The Zeppelin LZ-129 Hindenburg-class airship was a hydrogen-filled passenger aircraft – something which contributed to its demise. Hydrogen can lift a lot of weight – beneficial for passenger-carrying – but is highly flammable.
Helium on the other hand is also buoyant but not flammable, which is why airships are built to this design now.
In addition to the helium, some power also has to be added in order to provide the speed and lift capacity that airship applications will demand, which is why the majority of developments are hybrid airship designs, which combine LTA with heavier-than-air (HTA) capabilities.
Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works got to work on its P-791 hybrid airship demonstrator to compete for the US Army’s Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) programme, although it lost out on the tender to a Northrop Grumman-led team.
P-791 development has now been completed, and Lockheed is working on a commercially viable hybrid airship design that will come in three sizes.
Lockheed is working towards Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) type certification for its hybrid airship, and expects to achieve this – and have developed a commercial product that it can take to market – in some two to three years.
“It is important that before this is brought [to market], the cargo is there,” Bob Boyd, programme manager for hybrid airships at Lockheed explains.
He emphasises that the cost-savings have to be there in order for cargo transporters to want to opt for this new technology, otherwise it offers nothing new to the market.
Regarding taking the design to a military market, Boyd says that he expects the interest to be there when it is ready, as it fits certain requirements: “It is very clear from the US military that they would buy this by the tonne/mile,” he adds.
The services will not buy this, he says, but will rather purchase services from a commercial company: “They certainly learned that airship technology was not as easy as they thought it was.
“I think the key factor in this industry is to develop a product that works effectively and is reliable.”
While there is quite a robust marketplace for airships – and there is a lot of room for many players to get involved – any failure in the reliability of the aircraft being developed would be a setback for the whole industry.
LEMV was led by Northrop, but Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), based out of Bedfordshire, UK, provided the air vehicle.
Following the cancellation in 2013, HAV purchased the air vehicle back from the army for $301,000, and since then has been developing the system as a cargo-carrying hybrid airship for commercial applications initially.
Funding has been a challenge for the company, which admits that it saw a five-month setback following it not raising the required £5 million ($8.3 million) equity to take it to first flight since bringing it back to the UK.
This will now take place in the May 2015 timeframe once the equity round finalises on 15 August, although it was originally due to take place in December 2014.
Airlander 10 is the name of the first system in development, which has small cargo lift and passenger capacity and will eventually be followed by the Airlander 50 – a heavy-lift platform.
The company says that the UK Ministry of Defence has agreed to three months of testing for the Airlander 10 once it is flying.
It adds that because the payload capacity of hybrid airships is so large, many sensor developers in the UK are keen to integrate their systems on the Airlander, and are therefore putting pressure on the government to invest in the capability.
During the Farnborough air show in July, UK prime minister David Cameron pledged that the government would invest £1.1 billion in a range of specific MoD programmes, including an earmarked amount of money for undisclosed/unofficial developments.
HAV believes that the Airlander could come under this investment, although nothing has been officiated.
International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) had to be lifted once the aircraft had been returned to the UK, which recently was done. Until this time, the development of the 10 and 50 had to be separated so that ITAR restrictions did not affect the 50’s development.
The design of the aircraft makes it rather stealthy, so is suited for military applications. The curve of the airframe provides a low silhouette, while a low infrared signature as a result of low engine use protects it against heat-seeking missiles. It also has a low radar signature because it uses mainly composites instead of metal, and travels slowly and quietly, therefore is visually and audibly stealthy.
“This genuinely solves a military ISR problem,” the company says. “There is increasingly a need to watch the bad people all the time – this will be a crucial discriminator.”
AeroVehicles, based out of San Luis, Argentina, is also in the process of developing a hybrid airship design, which again has not yet flown a prototype.
The company has origins in the military airship market, having received a contract for its Minicat 80 non-rigid remote-controlled aircraft from the US government in 2003. The programme was subsequently cancelled, as was Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Walrus programme that the company was also involved in.
After structural changes, the company focused on developing its AeroCat vehicle through private investment – from one investor in particular – as well as Argentinian government support.
This is why there is not yet a demonstrator, says Bob Fowler, chief executive of the company, although it is now looking to accelerate this and utilise local industry in Argentina, which currently does not have a burgeoning aerospace industry.
Argentinian aerospace certification standards are in line with the FAA’s, so this will ease export of the system once it is commercially viable.
Fowler says that there are two companies interested in the design, to whom aircraft specification documents have been issued.
“The airship industry has had lots of obstacles to overcome,” Fowler says. “Somebody will be the first to market… We’ve been doing everything slowly but steadily.
“We are not in a race to be the first to market.”
Varialift has for a decade been planning to develop a rigid aluminium-hull design, which it claims will allow it to be built and stored outside without the need for a hangar.
The company has patented a helium compression technology that allows operators to transfer helium in and out of containers on-board the aircraft in order to vary the buoyancy between LTA and HTA configurations. Patents exist in the Europe, Hong Kong and the USA, and were all granted between 2008 and 2009.
Varialift claims that helium alone is required to lift the airship, thus reducing the power constraints on the vehicle – Cranfield University in the UK is involved in the design work.
The manned configuration of the airship will manifest in two different variants – the ARH 50 with a 50-tonne payload, and the ARH250 with a 250-tonne payload, and a crew of two and three respectively. Operating altitude for these could reach some 30,000ft.
An aircraft has not yet been built, but the company is working towards this under a new round of funding from a private investor. The first production line will be at a former French air force base, it is believed, which will initially develop the ARH50.
“Right now we’re setting up the factory, and are going through the EASA certification; we will be producing one a month in 24 months’ time in France,” Ernesto Soria, director for business development at Varialift, says.
“We have the site set up in France. We’ve done the preliminary work for certification, and this will kick off soon, and essentially in 24 months’ time it will be ready.”
Soria says 170 ARH50 and 33 ARH250 aircraft are on pre-order for customers that will lease out the services of the Varialift for cargo carrying.
“We did not speak of our technology until our patents were granted, and this takes time,” Soria says of the development timeline. “We wanted to control our technology… and that is why the development did not go faster. We wanted to be very prudent and methodical.”
An unmanned variant is also in the pipeline – the ARH5 – which would be used at high altitudes of some 65,000ft and will rely on solar power.
“After the certification of the first craft, we will be certifying a 100% solar-powered airship, which means zero fuel with the same performance as the airships with aircraft engines,” Soria notes. Varialift thinks the first of the solar-powered aircraft will be available in four years’ time.
Worldwide Aeros Corp’s Aeroscraft airship was originally supported by military funding from the US Department of Defense, DARPA and NASA with the idea to carry heavy cargo to areas where troops are forward deployed as well as disaster relief areas.
The technology demonstration programme, dubbed “Project Pelican”, was funded to three military objectives: greater route flexibility, enhancement of disaster relief response, and fuel savings.
“US military involvement has been important in rapidly incubating this technology and programme development,” Pasternak notes. “The US military will always be customer number one because of our deep respect for their mission and invaluable support during technology incubation and demonstration.”
However Pasternak notes that the commercial market holds much more financial potential, but both markets will have requirements for this technology for cargo shipping.
“We expect disaster response utilisation will be irregular and unpredictable, but an operational priority whenever required,” he adds.
The advanced prototype – the “Dragon Dream” – has completed technology demonstrator flight testing, and the company expects FAA type certification within three years.
Two variants are being developed – the 66t payload ML866 and the 250t payload ML868 – and Worldwide Aeros Corp plans to develop four ML866s and 18 ML868s initially.
A hangar collapse in October 2013 delayed the development programme by some 10 months, but Pasternak remains confident that the company will be the first to market with its airship: “We in very unique situation today where we’re simply enjoying lack of competition.”
He says the LTA market has been limited by the prevalence of non-rigid design as well as a constant requirement for airships to have external ballast that is sufficient to offset payloads offloaded at destination. The need for ground handling equipment also hinders applications for the technology.
“Need for ‘runways’ has significantly limited the usefulness of traditional LTA vehicles for cargo applications,” he adds.
Aeroscraft uses an internal buoyancy management technology to provide the vertical lift akin to rotorcraft, but can carry a heavier load and travel long distances like a fixed wing aircraft.
“Because an Aeroscraft only needs to overcome drag in forward flight, not generate lift, it will operate at less than one-third the fuel consumption of conventional vehicles on a per tonne/mile basis,” Pasternak adds.
The airship is slower than a fixed-wing aircraft, but will offer cargo transport at a quicker pace than rail, road and ship, while evading the need for ports and runways.
Rather than struggling to define the requirement, industry seems to be planning for beyond what it realistically has to do to commercialise the technology.
Understandably, developers do not want to fail in their endeavour to establish airships as the future of cargo transport, but more pressure lies upon this particular industry in consideration of past events.
The utilisation will be realised over the next few years as companies approach timelines they have set for themselves and promised prospective customers, so time will tell if the future of cargo transport is revolutionised as predicted.