What Are Airships and Will They Be Part of the Future? - Nanalyze (2022)

What Are Airships and Will They Be Part of the Future? - Nanalyze (1)

Thomas Edison famously said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” If we were to adapt this quote to the modern-day business climate, it might go something like this: “Success is 1% inspiration, 49% perspiration, and 50% promotion.” Hype is having its heyday, especially when it comes to emerging technologies. We just wrote about the disconnect with reality behind blank check companies and stock prices, but you can really apply this to almost any investment theme, public or private. Take transportation. Where are our flying cars, jetpacks, and autonomous vehicles? Sure, most of these technologies are in various stages of development, but how long have we read articles saying, “This is the year …” Now, suddenly airships are floating to the top of the list of new but old technologies to meet our future transportation needs.

What Are Airships?

First, let’s get something straight: The soft rock band Air Supply has nothing to do with airships. We were also disappointed to learn this. The term airship probably conjures up a couple of images for most of us. You may remember seeing Goodyear blimps fly over these things we once called sports stadiums where millionaires battled each other to the death in the glorious Pre-Pandemic Period. The other is the infamous Hindenburg disaster, which pretty much turned most people off of airships after this photo started making the rounds:

What Are Airships and Will They Be Part of the Future? - Nanalyze (2)

Airships originally referred to any sort of flying contraption, including some back-of-the-parchment designs that date to the 17th century. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that flying balloons got off the ground and somewhere around the mid-19th century we had the first airships that took on the classic blimp form. The golden age of airships got underway in the early 20th century with the launch of the first zeppelin airships made in Germany, ending in flames with the 1937 crash of the Hindenburg.

Today, airships refer to any powered, steerable aircraft that is inflated with a gas that is lighter than air. The gas of choice today is helium rather than the highly flammable hydrogen that ignited the infamous zeppelin. You may encounter the term dirigible, which is synonymous with airship. After that, the nomenclature breaks down into different categories based on the framework – rigid, semi-rigid, and non-rigid.

What Are Airships and Will They Be Part of the Future? - Nanalyze (3)

The last category is pretty much synonymous with blimps, where pressure from the gas within the envelope of the airship maintains its shape. A semi-rigid airship is sort of like a blimp but, as the name implies, there is at least a partial framework that provides structure. The latest generation of zeppelins, Zeppelin NT (New Technology), are semi-rigid. In fact, the current Goodyear blimps are not actually blimps but Zeppelin NTs, after the two companies renewed their partnership 70 years later after a little falling out called World War II. Rigid airships consist of an outer framework covered by an envelope. The original zeppelins were of this classification.

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21st Century Business Case for Airships

It seems like only yesterday we were asking whether supersonic air travel would return. Now we’re wondering if airships will also make a comeback in the 21st century. They never entirely went away, of course, though the couple of dozen or so currently in use around the world are mostly floating billboards or offer local scenic flights to tourists. Aside from tourism, the main use case for a new generation of airships is to serve as transportation for people and cargo to remote locations where few roads or airstrips exist. Unlike the solutions for urban air mobility, which involves a network of drones and flying cars to serve the transportation needs of smart cities, airships are decidedly for serving rural and remote sites.

One of the key arguments in favor of airships is that they are much more environmentally friendly. Some have suggested we could replace air freight cargo planes with airships, which produce 80% to 90% fewer emissions than conventional aircraft (it’s why we considered airships green tech). The transport sector is reportedly responsible for around 25% of global CO2 emissions. While only about 3% currently come from cargo ships, this figure is expected to increase by between 50% and 250% until 2050.

A research paper published last year proposes that airships would be especially energy efficient because they could crisscross the world using the jet streams, reliably strong winds that flow from west to east, around five to eight miles above the Earth’s surface. These big-brained researchers also noted that these new airships could reliably transport hydrogen to help power another hyped-but-never-realized commercial technology – hydrogen fuel cells.

In the second half of the article, we introduce you to some of the companies developing and operating the next generation of airships.

Hybrid Airships for All Occasions

What Are Airships and Will They Be Part of the Future? - Nanalyze (4)

We generally seem to find at least one giant aerospace company lurking on the periphery whenever we write about these emerging transportation technologies. In this case, it’s Lockheed Martin (LMT) and its Skunk Works division, which is behind the company’s experimental aircraft programs.

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The company has been at work on what it calls a hybrid airship for 20 years. About 10 years ago, Lockheed finally flew the technology demonstrator known as the P-791. That airship was designed with military applications in mind, loaded with cameras, infrared sensors, communications relays, and other payloads for reconnaissance missions. Unlike old-school dirigibles, the non-rigid hybrid airship from Lockheed Martin is heavier than air, with about 80% of the lift coming from buoyant helium and 20% from the hull aerodynamics and vectored thrust from the aircraft’s four rotatable engines. It uses hovercraft technology for its landing system, where blowers create atmospheric pressure differences that enable the airship to float above the surface.

What Are Airships and Will They Be Part of the Future? - Nanalyze (5)

The hull itself is made from a Kevlar-like fabric called Vectran. It features a robotic inspection technology, Self-Propelled Instrument for Damage Evaluation and Repair (SPIDER), which spots and fixes pinhole leaks while the hybrid airship is fully inflated. SPIDER consists of two magnetically attached halves, one that sits on the outside of the airship, while the other clings to it from the inside. The bivalve robot uses a set of bright LED lights and a camera to automatically spot pinhole leaks and then repositions itself to patch them.

What Are Airships and Will They Be Part of the Future? - Nanalyze (6)

A UK company called Straightline Aviation, with Sir Richard Branson apparently as its spokesperson, appears to be building its operation around the Lockheed Martin hybrid airship. Straightline has reportedly committed to buying the first dozen airships, which can carry at least a 20-ton payload, as well 12 to 19 passengers. The company has ambitious plans for its $480 million fleet of airships, with applications in everything from cargo and transportation to disaster relief and humanitarian missions to aerial surveillance and telecommunications.

Hybrid-Electric Airship

What Are Airships and Will They Be Part of the Future? - Nanalyze (7)

Another UK startup appears to be well-positioned in terms of SEO, if not financing: Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) has raised about $4.3 million from crowdfunding campaigns for its Airlander series of airships. The company says its technology “uses a combination of proven aerospace technologies from a mixture of airships (hull fabric and helium), fixed-wing aircraft (composite structures, engines, and avionics), and helicopters (vectored thrust).” Like Lockheed Martin’s P-791, HAV’s airship was originally developed for the military in collaboration with defense contractor Northrop Grumman (NOC).

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What Are Airships and Will They Be Part of the Future? - Nanalyze (8)

The flagship model, Airlander 10, is reputedly the longest airship in the world at 320 feet, and can stay aloft for five days with a range of 4,000 miles. While the current model can reduce emissions by 75% compared to other aircraft, HAV is also working on a hybrid-electric model that reduces emissions by 90% and will be capable of carrying up to 90 passengers. A Swedish outfit called OceanSky Aviation plans to begin offering high-end Arctic expeditions aboard the Airlander 10 by the 2023-24 season under its OceanSky Cruises brand. Book your tickets now.

Heavy Lift Cargo Airships

What Are Airships and Will They Be Part of the Future? - Nanalyze (9)

Meanwhile, a French startup called Flying Whales hopes to be the first to launch a heavy lift rigid airship to transport cargo. Founded in 2012, Flying Whales has reportedly raised $246 million in funding to develop a 500-foot-long dirigible capable of handling 60 metric tons of cargo. The investors are mainly government-backed enterprises and funds from France and China, includingChina’s state-owned aviation company AVIC General, which owns about 25% of Flying Whales. The startup’s LCA60T model features a carbon fiber composite and hybrid propulsion system. It will deliver cargo either in an internal hold or via a sling load:

What Are Airships and Will They Be Part of the Future? - Nanalyze (10)

The company claims its closest competitors are large cargo helicopters, such as the Russian Mil Mi-26M that can lift 25 metric tons. The helicopter reportedly costs nearly $1 million a day to operate versus $50,000 for the LCA60T. The company also claims that it will build its first factory at a cost of about $100 million in the Bordeaux region by next year. It goes even further, saying it anticipates sales of more than $5.5 billion over 10 years from a fleet of 150 airships built in factories in France and China.

What Are Airships and Will They Be Part of the Future? - Nanalyze (11)

Meanwhile, a U.S.-based airship manufacturer, Worldwide Aeros Corp, is working on its own heavy-lift rigid airship, the Aeroscraft. Founded way back in 1987, Aeros originally developed the prototypes for the Aeroscraft thanks to tens of millions of dollars from the U.S. government. Most of the news around the company appears to be a few years old, so it’s unclear where Aeros is in the development and completion of the cargo airship.

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What Are Airships and Will They Be Part of the Future? - Nanalyze (12)

The big differentiator is a technology that the company created to avoid the need for ballast called control of static heaviness (COSH). The main gas bag is inflated with helium to create lift for takeoff, then on landing some of the gas is re-compressed into a storage tank to partially deflate the gas bag and reduce lift.

Conclusion

As you can see there is a bit of hot air surrounding the future of airships. The industry is more famous for its failures (see Hindenburg and CargoLifter) than its successes. A big headwind certainly surrounds the future of the world’s supply of helium, a nonrenewable resource used in the superconductor technology behind things like MRI machines and quantum computers. The world may have about a century-worth of the element left, with about 40% located in the United States. The decision may come down to more clown balloons or giant airships.

Still, there appears to be some momentum behind the development of airships, with companies in both Canada and Russia also developing heavy-lift dirigibles. The race never ends to find newer and cheaper ways to extract resources from the most far-flung places in the world. Airships will fly if the economics make sense.

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FAQs

Will there be airships in the future? ›

The new helium blimps are powered by a hybrid of combustion and electric engines. In comparison to aircraft, the hybrid electric-powered vehicle offers a 90% carbon emission reduction. However, many companies want to design fully electric airships by 2030 and offer zero-emissions flights.

Are airships coming back? ›

Airships may seem like technology from a bygone era, but they are taking to the skies again in the 21st century. Airships may seem like technology from a bygone era, but they are taking to the skies again in the 21st century.

What are airships used for? ›

Although airships are no longer used for major cargo and passenger transport, they are still used for other purposes such as advertising, sightseeing, surveillance, research and advocacy.

Why are airships no longer used? ›

The main reason you never see airships in the sky anymore is because of the huge costs it takes to build and run them. They're very expensive to build and very expensive to fly. Airships require a large amount of helium, which can cost up to $100,000 for one trip, according to Wilnechenko.

What is the future of air travel? ›

Hydrogen-powered planes.

A recent report suggested that hydrogen-powered planes could enter the market as soon as 2035, and those planes could carry hundreds more passengers per flight than traditional planes, with a cleaner energy source.

When did the last airship fly? ›

On May 6, 1937, the German zeppelin Hindenburg exploded, filling the sky above Lakehurst, New Jersey, with smoke and fire.

How many airships are left? ›

In 2021, Reader's Digest said that "consensus is that there are about 25 blimps still in existence and only about half of them are still in use for advertising purposes". The Airsign Airship Group is the owner and operator of 8 of these active ships, including the Hood Blimp, DirecTV blimp, and the MetLife blimp.

How much does an airship cost? ›

Further, if you go out and price a helium airship, you'll find that the cheapest one made costs over $2 million. If you want a real top-notch ship, the Zeppelin NT -- the only other airship available with in-flight control that comes close to ours, you're looking at a price tag over $12 million.

How long can a airship stay in the air? ›

How long can an airship stay aloft ? Our airships could stay aloft, without refueling, for up to 24 hours. With extra tanks, one of our Skyships flew for 52 hours without refueling in 1990.

What are advantages of airships? ›

Airships have some inherent advantages over conventional aircraft. They require no runway, so they can take off and land almost anywhere, and they burn less fuel to get off the ground and stay aloft. An airship could hover above a city after a natural disaster to provide communications services.

Can airships go to space? ›

Flying an airship directly from the ground to orbit is not practical. An airship large enough to reach orbit would not survive the winds near the surface of the Earth. Conversely, an airship that could fly from the ground to upper atmosphere would not be light enough to reach space.

Can airships be safe? ›

The hull of the airship is nothing like in the past. Today's materials are strong, light and rip-proof by fusing layers with different properties to form the gas-proof skin. Airships fly low, unpressurised. This means there is no risk of rapid decompression, thus eliminating another threat to air safety.

Are airships bulletproof? ›

Unlike airplanes, helicopters, and drones it is essentially "bulletproof" in that it is unaffected by punctures. Unlike the Hindenburg, our airship is filled with helium, a non-flammable inert gas.

Are airships better than airplanes? ›

With a fraction of energy consumption and a less complex vehicle than airplanes, airships' operational cost will have lower unit costs than airplanes. Airships are energy efficient, cost efficient and can easily be designed as zero emission vehicles.

Does the military still use airships? ›

However, their inherent vulnerabilities and improving technologies on surface ships, submarines and ASW aircraft eventually led to the end of military airships, with the last retired from service by the U.S. Navy on Aug.

What will air travel look like in 2050? ›

Passenger air traffic will continue to grow and is expected to be 2.5 times larger in 2050 compared to 2019. As sustainable aviation fuels come into use and prices rise slightly, that increase will be affected but not by much.

How will we travel in 2040? ›

The rise of high-speed rail.

By 2040, cross-border train journeys will be smoother and improved in many parts of the world. Computer networks and the Internet of Things (IoT) will manage national and international rail networks, allowing trains to run faster and closer together.

What are 3 new technologies that will change aviation? ›

9 IT Trends Shaping the Aviation Industry in 2022
  • Smart Airports via Digitization.
  • IoT and Cloud Technology.
  • AI and Machine Learning.
  • Social Distancing Technology.
  • Blockchain.
  • Sustainability.
  • In-Flight Connectivity.
  • Advanced Self-Service and Biometrics.

How far can an airship travel in a day? ›

A blimp is an airship that has no internal framework to keep its helium gas bag rigid. Pilots power and steer blimps with two propeller engines and a movable tail and rudder system. On average, blimps can travel 150-200 miles per day. There are 4 air valves on each blimp- two at the front and two at the back.

How long would it take a Zeppelin to cross the Atlantic? ›

While Queen Mary steamed on the ocean below, Hindenburg carried passengers from shore to shore in a matter of hours; the airship's fastest crossing was just forty-three hours. 'Two Days to Europe! ' boasted Hindenburg's brochures and posters.

How fast can an airship go? ›

Three four-cylinder, 200-horsepower engines are located on either side of the envelope and at the tail and can propel the airship at speeds of up to 73 miles per hour.

Do airships pollute less than airplanes? ›

An airship produces 80% to 90% fewer emissions than conventional aircraft,” said Jean Baptiste Meusnier, spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association.

How high could airships go? ›

Airships can operate below 20,000 and above 60,000 feet

Used with permission. 2 But well below 350,000 feet. 3 Wind speed is different at different heights. 4 The jet stream can exist between 25,000 feet and 40,000 feet (7.6 to 12 km) with winds that can exceed 130 knots.

Why did airships explode? ›

Both concluded that atmospheric conditions that rainy evening had led to the disaster, although they differed as to the exact mechanism. The Americans suggested an electrical phenomenon called a “brush discharge” had most likely ignited leaking hydrogen, starting the fast-moving fire.

How loud is an airship? ›

Sound levels in the GZ-20 blimp reached 110 decibels — similar to the noise level at a rock concert or near an industrial riveting machine. Sound in the zeppelin's gondola max out at 69 decibels, which is comparable to a dishwasher.

Are airships more fuel efficient than planes? ›

Airships are far more fuel-efficient than planes, which must constantly burn jet fuel to stay aloft.

How small can an airship be? ›

In the real world, the smallest airship that I know of is Gallagher's airship the White Dwarf. It is about 48 feet long and 17 feet wide with a 17 foot long gondola and 6200 cubic feet of lifting gas capable of lifting almost 400 pounds.

Can an airship cross the ocean? ›

First Atlantic crossing by airship

The first successful crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by airship took place in 1919, just a few weeks after the first transatlantic airplane flight by British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown.

Can airships fly in cold weather? ›

The wind has to be 20 knots or less. And with a typical cruising altitude of 1,000 to 1,500 feet, a low cloud base will keep an airship on the ground. Snow and ice are the worst, making a blimp too heavy to fly. Most airships usually head north around April and migrate back south or to California by November.

Can airships fly in storms? ›

Airships can and do fly in all of the weather conditions that their nonbuoyant aircraft counterparts do.

Do airships make sense? ›

But cargo airships may actually make a tremendous amount of sense. They are relatively cheap, they can carry enormous amounts of material, and they emit significantly less greenhouse gas than other modes of transportation.

Are airships faster than ships? ›

A new study in the journal Energy Conversion and Management found that an airship five times the length of the Empire State Building riding the jet stream could circle the globe in 14 days—faster than any oceangoing ship.

Are airships faster than planes? ›

While the airships aren't nearly as fast as planes or high-speed trains, they have a max speed of about 81 miles per hour, but what you lose in time, you make up for reduced emissions.

Can an airship fly on Mars? ›

It wouldn't be able to fly at all on Mars. Although there is only about a third as much gravity on Mars - the atmosphere is only 1% of the density on Earth - so you'd need something about 33 times larger BUT with the same weight as a Zeppelin - and even with modern technology, that's a bit of a stretch.

Would an airship work on Mars? ›

The vacuum airship could be used as a communication relay for other vehicular probes on Mars thereby overcoming line of sight constraints. If the vacuum airship is damaged, it can land, be repaired, and re-evacuated to resume operation, whereas a balloon would need to have gas pumped back into the vessel.

Can you smoke on an airship? ›

Smoking was allowed on the hydrogen filled zeppelin, the Hindenburg, but only in a specially made pressurized smoking room. the smoking room was separated from the rest of the passenger section by a double-door airlock.

What was the worst airship disaster in history? ›

USS Akron crashes at sea off the coast of New Jersey in severe storm. With 73 dead - many drowned - and 3 survivors, this remains the deadliest airship accident.

Are airships flammable? ›

Modern blimps, like the Goodyear Blimp, are filled with helium, which is non-flammable and safe but expensive. Early blimps and other airships were often filled with hydrogen, which is lighter than helium and provides more lift, but is flammable.

What are the disadvantages of airships? ›

Airships are cool, and one of the only vehicles that benefits of the square cube law as it can carry more weight if it has more volume of lifting gas.
...
Disadvantages of size will be grouped around housekeeping:
  • Hangars are more scarce,
  • mooring is more difficult,
  • repairs are complicated by increasing lack of facilities.
26 Mar 2019

Do airships use fuel? ›

The usual gases used for lifting airships are hydrogen and helium. Hydrogen is the lightest known gas and thus has great lifting capacity, but it is also highly flammable and has caused many fatal airship disasters. Helium is not as buoyant but is far safer than hydrogen because it does not burn.

How much do blimp drivers make? ›

Average Salary:

Blimp pilots can expect to start somewhere around $25,000 per year. An experienced blimp pilot can earn more like $70,000 per year.

Why did Germany stop using zeppelins? ›

The vulnerability of Zeppelins to explosive shells, and their relatively slow speed, led to rapid development of heavier-than-air machines. By 1918 both sides were using large numbers of aeroplanes, not just for reconnaissance, but as fighter air support and as bombers.

Did any zeppelins survive ww1? ›

It was constructed at Luftschiffbau Zeppelin in Friedrichshafen, the first with gondolas on the sides. It remained in the service of the Imperial German Navy from 1916 to its decommissioning in 1917. "L 30" was decommissioned in 1917, and survived World War I.

Why the airship may be the future of air travel? ›

With a fraction of energy consumption and a less complex vehicle than airplanes, airships' operational cost will have lower unit costs than airplanes. Airships are energy efficient, cost efficient and can easily be designed as zero emission vehicles.

Do zeppelins exist today? ›

Zeppelins still fly today; in fact the new Goodyear airship is a not a blimp but a zeppelin, built by a descendant of the same company that built Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg.

Can an airship reach space? ›

Flying an airship directly from the ground to orbit is not practical. An airship large enough to reach orbit would not survive the winds near the surface of the Earth. Conversely, an airship that could fly from the ground to upper atmosphere would not be light enough to reach space.

How high can an airship fly? ›

Airships can operate below 20,000 and above 60,000 feet

Used with permission. 2 But well below 350,000 feet. 3 Wind speed is different at different heights. 4 The jet stream can exist between 25,000 feet and 40,000 feet (7.6 to 12 km) with winds that can exceed 130 knots.

How long can an airship stay in the air? ›

How long can an airship stay aloft ? Our airships could stay aloft, without refueling, for up to 24 hours. With extra tanks, one of our Skyships flew for 52 hours without refueling in 1990.

Are ships more eco friendly than planes? ›

GIVE CRUISE SHIPS A WIDE BERTH

Cruise ships emit more carbon per passenger kilometre than flying, even considering the extra damage that emissions cause at high altitude. It's thought that the Queen Mary II emits 0.43kg of CO2 per passenger mile – that's even worse than the 0.257kg for a long-haul flight.

Do any airships still exist? ›

In 2021, Reader's Digest said that "consensus is that there are about 25 blimps still in existence and only about half of them are still in use for advertising purposes". The Airsign Airship Group is the owner and operator of 8 of these active ships, including the Hood Blimp, DirecTV blimp, and the MetLife blimp.

Could zeppelins be shot down? ›

Even if a Zeppelin was successfully intercepted they could still be remarkably difficult to shoot down. Although far far larger than the average barn door, hitting them with a machine gun could be remarkably difficult in the dark.

How many people were killed by zeppelins? ›

Of the 115 Zeppelins used by the German military, 53 were lost and 24 were damaged beyond repair. In Britain 528 people, mostly civilians, had been killed and more than 1000 wounded during the Zeppelin attacks.

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