Straightline Aviation has announced a new agreement with a Canadian mining company to deploy the Lockheed Martin LMH-1 hybrid airship to northern Quebec, shuttling 21t of rare earth ore concentrate more than 200nm from a remote lakeside mine to a railway stop in Schefferville, where the precious cargo can be conveyed to a port at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River for delivery to microchip foundries.
In many ways, it’s the ideal role for the burgeoning class of heavier-than-air blimps that could transform logistics services in remote locations that lack basic infrastructure. But that depends on the still-uncertain prospect that Lockheed will launch the LMH-1 programme.
Despite Straightline’s agreements with multiple customers, Lockheed still hasn’t received a firm order. In the 1950s, Boeing launched the 367-80 prototype to fuel airline interest in jet-powered transportation, but Lockheed has shown no interest in investing hundreds of millions in full-scale development programme ahead of a firm order.
“You’re not going see the big investment of actually building a machine,” says Robert Boyd, programme manager for Lockheed’s hybrid airships. “You’re not going to see that until we have a confirmed order.”
That still represents a measure of progress for the programme within Lockheed. Several years ago, Lockheed executives had refused to launch development of a hybrid airship for the commercial market unless the customer pays the bill estimated at hundreds of millions to certificate the unique vessel. Such a policy works in Lockheed’s defence business, but commercial customers usually prefer the manufacturer to finance their own product development.
“At the end of the day, Lockheed said if we’re going to build this product we’ve got to believe in it so we’ve stepped,” Boyd says. “We’d just like to know that somebody is going to buy it.”
Therein lies the next complication to securing a firm order. Lacking the cash to buy the aircraft up front, Straightline intends to finance the purchase with loans. But that requires the broader finance community, including banks, insurers and lawyers, to grow comfortable with the idea of a new kind of aircraft that is part blimp and part rotorcraft.
“It’s new and different,” Boyd says, “and when you talk to insurance people the idea of new and different is not good. And when you talk to lawyers, new and different is not good. So it takes them a while to get their head around it and get comfortable with what we’re doing here.”
The concept hasn’t changed. As a hybrid airship, the LMH-1 generates lift in two ways. A large helium gas bag provides about 80% of the lift through buoyancy. Aerodynamic shaping and forward air speed provide the remainder of the lift. Four, 350hp diesel continental motors provide thrusts and directional control. An air cushion landing system is used to clutch the ground, removing the need for mooring equipment. Unlike blimps, hybrid airship can carry heavy loads and self-deploy. Lockheed flew the proof of concept P791 prototype in 2006.
An attempt to sell the concept the US military fell apart. Lockheed lost a competition to supply a hybrid airship to the US Army to Northrop Grumman, which had teamed with UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles. The army, however, cancelled the programme, but sold the prototype vehicle back to HAV. The renamed Airlander 10 resumed flight testing earlier this year, but is now on hiatus to repair damage from a crash landing on 24 August.
Meanwhile, Straightline and Lockheed need to prove to the finance community that a commercial market exists for such an aircraft. The company has now signed agreements with an Alaskan logistics firm, a humanitarian relief organization and lastly the Canadian mining company.
As soon as that comes together, Lockheed believes flight test and certification could move rapidly. If a firm order is placed late this year or in early 2017, entry-into-service for the LMH-1 would occur in 2019. But Boyd is careful to guard his optimism in hybrid airships, a technology Lockheed began working on 25 years ago.
“Sometimes I say everything is slow in the airship world,” Boyd says, “and it’s true”.