We are very close to waking up one day and finding ourselves in Fringe’s Alternative Universe. You can always tell by the airships’ sedate glide above the skyscrapers. Appropriately, it is on the fringe of engineering that the hybrid airship has quietly come about.
The first powered flight was an airship 51 years before the Wright brothers. A Frenchman by the name of Jules Henri Giffard attached a 3 horsepower steam engine to a cigar-shaped lifting bag and piloted it 17 miles above Paris at 6 miles per hour. Then came the Zeppelin airship, a rigid frame with cloth cover and internal lifting bags, was built by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in 1895. The luxury class flying industry it brought about died along with 36 passengers in the flames of the Hindenburg crash in May of 1937.
The historic airship has a lot going for it. It can carry a large payload faster than a passenger liner. There is very little turbulence and it has an impressive range. They can hover or turn in place. Flying low, they don’t typically require pressurization.
And it has some serious drawbacks. It requires attentive ground crews to keep it near the ground when loading and unloading. It is vulnerable to wind gusts on the ground and in the air, where it must avoid bad weather at all costs. Hangar space has to be huge and, therefore, expensive. They are so huge, an old German airship hangar was converted into a large, covered waterpark. Using hydrogen in conjunction with flammable construction material is bad, bad, bad.
Because a lot of these bad things are surmountable, a company has decided to bring back the airship. It is a hybrid airship called Airlander. It is hybrid because it gets its lift from three sources; helium-filled bag, wing-shaped lifting body, and thrusters. Using these in combination allows the ship to land like a plane but with a much shorter runway. It can also hover and come straight down, doing a vertical landing or takeoff like a helicopter. It carries its own anchor mast and can withstand 80 kilometer winds without a hangar. Which is the point. It doesn’t need a hangar and requires only a two-person ground crew for the Airlander 10 with a 10 metric ton capacity and none for the Airlander 50 with a 50 ton capacity. Production models are expected to be in the air by 2020.
While there is a lot of hoopla about commercial passenger flying, heavy cargo transport is a given with the airship. Especially since it can go anywhere and land on any flat surface, including water without the need of a runway or hangar.
Africa is an undeveloped continent just waiting for the Airlander to open it up. There are many places in Africa that don’t have access by paved road or the existing roads are unpaved and in poor condition. This is a severe restraint to travel and trade. With a hybrid airship, one could access the farthest reaches of a country with heavy equipment, prefab buildings, or hundreds of people at a time without roads. There are many parts of Asia on a par with Africa as far as undeveloped infrastructure.
And who is at the forefront of acquiring and utilizing this technology? The Chinese. They are in line to receive three of the first ten manufactured Airlanders, which begins manufacturing in 2020. Just like they envisioned the importance of rare earth minerals 20 years ago and set out to dominate that market, the Chinese have realized the importance of roadless transportation, especially with regards to Africa and undeveloped parts of Asia.
The Airlander is not the only airship China has in mind. Soon there will be an airship assembly line in Jingmen, China. With designs from French company Flying Whales, a Chinese company, China Aviation Industry General Aircraft Co., Ltd. (CAIGA), will soon be pumping out airships to use for logging in Asia beginning in 2022. These ships are twice as long as a Boeing 747 and will lift 60 tons of cargo.
Electric propulsion is already being studied for the Airlander and there seems to be no roadblocks to the airship becoming fully electric or a hybrid electric. In the latter case, the Airlander will become a hybrid hybrid airship. Sounds silly, but imagine a swath of flexible solar cells blanketing the enormous surface of an airship feeding several lithium ion batteries that would feel comfortable aboard a Tesla. If it works on the Airlander, it will work on any airship.
Back to the 60 metric ton behemoths being built in China. That’s 132,277 pounds of payload. If it were passengers instead of logs, and we say the average weight of a human is 150 pounds then these ships could carry 882 passengers. That’s not true because there must be seats and luggage compartments and other stuff. It would only carry about 500 passengers. Now make the airship electric, and you have the cheapest airline in the world. No fuel costs. Not the fastest, but a lot of people would forego speed for thrift in the third world economies.
Okay, so we won’t be in Fringe’s Alternate Universe, but it will look damn close except for those Chinese symbols on the sides of the airships floating by. The rest of the world needs to realize the potential of this industry. Expensive infrastructure for travel and freight can be eliminated. Roads, airports, and fuel stations will be much less important going forward once these airships are put in production and utilized to their maximum potential. The Hindenburg is dead! Long live the Hindenburg!
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