The five decades from 1914 saw heavier-than-air ­aviation evolve from basic biplanes to the jet age. The subsequent 50 years welcomed stealth, supersonic airliners, huge advances in aerostructures and mass air travel. However, lighter-than-air technology has moved somewhat more hesitantly in the century since German Zeppelins first terrorised Londoners.

Yet, despite a tainted history – from the Hindenburg disaster to recent ill-fated commercial and military developments – the airship dream remains alive for a new generation of entrepreneurs and aviators. The trouble is, no-one has proven a genuine business case for powered lighter-than-air, beyond a tiny fleet of sightseeing craft built by Zeppelin’s successor in Friedrichshafen.

In the security realm, aerostats – tethered airships – are in wide use. A Raytheon system will deploy over Washington DC with a radar suite in the not-too-distant future, while aerostats have also been used in Afghanistan to provide persistent surveillance over bases.

Zeppelin article image

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However, attempts to develop powered airships for the military have ended in failure or stasis. Instead, the commercial market is the great hope – but with airships carrying cargo rather than passengers.

Progress towards a viable programme has been slow, with numerous developments in the works for the best part of a decade – but many lacking even a tangible ­prototype to justify the time spent. One problem is that the military is no longer supporting projects when once it was primary financial partner. With restricted budgets and an ever-expanding operational theatre, the military had to make tough choices – and airships did not make the cut.

On paper, airships are ideal for a commercial mission. Despite a vulnerability to adverse weather, they are long-endurance, low-fuel, heavy cargo-carrying systems that can be unmanned to alleviate any burden to the operator, and get on with a mundane, essential task.

Rising fuel prices could provide the breakthrough. Slower than fixed-wing aircraft, but faster than seaborne transport – albeit with a smaller payload – airships could serve a sweet spot between the two modes in an era of high propulsion costs.

To get to the stage where airships are a viable option for cargo will require a great deal of funds – and risk. With the taxpayer out of the picture, this must come from corporations or start-ups. But whether big companies have the appetite and investors the deep pockets to see the development through is far from certain.

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Source: Flight International