Will airships and zeppelins get another chance?

Atlas’s airships were broadly discussed in an article published on July 26 2021 on 1E9 weblite in German language.

Check the article here.

English Translation:

They were once the symbol of technical progress, the future of mobility and aviation. Long before the airplanes, it was airships and zeppelins that connected people across borders and oceans. But unfortunate catastrophes ended the age of the floating giants. Now they could – again – come back.

From Michael Förtsch

It was a construction that seems quite elegant to this day. In 1852 the French inventor Henri Giffard designed a fascinating aircraft. It consisted of a cigar-shaped balloon that was covered with a dense net, making it the first impact airship. A small gondola, which was equipped with a three-horsepower steam engine and propeller, hung from it. On September 24, 1852, Giffard boarded the vehicle, christened Giffard 1, and made a maiden flight. He covered a total of 27 kilometers at an altitude of up to 1,800 meters and a speed of at least 9 kilometers per hour. With this, Henri Giffard had built the first functioning airship – and thus developed a real technology of the future.

Only 50 years later, airships were on several routes in Germany and other countries. In particular, the modern rigid airships, in which not only a gondola hangs under a gas-filled envelope. Instead, they had a shell structure made of lattice frames stretched over them. Parts of it were intended for the propellant, others for passengers and crew. The ships, which length ware between 130 and 160 meters, transported people and cargo. From 1919 onwards, airships also linked the European and American continents. The British airship R34 only needed 108 hours for the outward flight and 75 hours for the return flight. Even modern transport ships on the water are no faster.

In the first half of the 20th century, airships became the ultimate air vehicle. They were luxury and transportation flying machines. Cities were equipped with landing pads and anchor masts, when larger and larger airships were planned. At least until their era ended abruptly – with the explosion of the LZ 129, the Hindenburg. When the airship was about to land on May 6, 1937 in Lakehurst, New Jersey, its hydrogen filling ignited. The ship went up in flames and 35 people died. It wasn’t the first airship disaster, nor the worst – by no means. But it was the first to be captured on film and broadcast live on the radio. Confidence in the safety of the airships was suddenly gone – and gradually the giants of the sky disappeared.

Almost a century has passed since the Hindenburg disaster. Nowadays, airships are curiosities and attractions. If one flies in the sky, that’s a special feature that makes people look up and pull out their smartphones. But it seems as if the airships could now – after a comeback attempt with the cargo lifters failed 20 years ago – actually return and experience their renaissance. Work has been going on for almost twelve years in a large hangar in Bedford, UK, to herald this return. Because the Airlander 10 is being built there by a company called Hybrid Air Vehicles. It is intended to “rethink the sky”, says Tom Grundy, head of Hybrid Air Vehicles. “We are building a modern airship that combines the best elements of the known airships with new methods and considerations.”

The development of the Airlander 10 began as a military project. With the HAV 304, Hybrid Air Vehicles was to develop an airship for the US military for multi-day reconnaissance and espionage missions. The prototype of the modern hybrid airship was planned and built with it. In other words, an airship that provides lift with both lighter-than-air gas and an aerodynamically shaped body and propellers. Its shell was made of high-tech materials such as Kevlar and Vectren, which made it airtight and stable, so that even when it is not filled with gas, it retains its shape without a support structure. Despite a successful flight of the prototype, the project was discontinued by the US military in 2012. Therefore, the founders of Hybrid Air Vehicles decided to reschedule the HAV 304 – for civil use as the Airlander 10.

The engineers believe that a modern airship is not only feasible but also makes sense. Above all in the face of climate change and stricter emissions and environmental protection requirements. The 92-meter-long ship should be able to transport up to ten tons and cover around 7,400 kilometers in one go. And not just with cargo loads, but also with passengers. Up to 100 people should find space in the big belly of the Airlander 10. It could be used precisely on the much-criticized routes, says HAV founder Tom Grundy, which aircraft usually cover short-haul routes.

According to Grundy, routes such as Barcelona to Palma de Mallorca could also be covered with an Airlander instead of by plane. Instead of 50 minutes, the flight would take around four and a half hours. But there would also be a lot of the typical airport hype and the CO-2 footprint per passenger would be reduced from 54 kilograms to just 4.5 kilograms. Other routes that Hybrid Air Vehicles has already balanced are Liverpool to Belfast, Oslo to Stockholm and Seattle to Vancouver. The Airlander could also fly in Germany. “[The Airlander 10] is not a luxury product, it is a practical solution to the challenges of the climate crisis,” says Grundy. And one that is already a reality.

The Airlander 10 flies as a prototype and has already been approved by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency. The first series copies should take off in 2025. Its four propellers are to be driven by a diesel engine each. A fully electric version of the Airlander 10 is already being planned. Their carbon footprint should then be even smaller.

The solution for everything?

Gennadiy Verba shares the dreams of the Airlander developers. He is also working to bring airships back into people’s everyday lives. “It’s a great technology,” he says in an interview with 1E9. “And it deserves a better future, more attention and more dissemination.” That is why he started Atlas LTA in 2016, based in Rosh Ha’Ayin, Israel. “It’s what I do,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for 35 years. Almost all of my life. ” He was building an airship in the former Soviet Union. Then in the USA, where he and a school friend founded Worldwide Aeros, which today mainly produces driverless airships as flying radio beacons, advertising panels and monitoring stations.

With Atlas LTA, Verba wants to build a family of impact airships with gondolas by 2029, as they can be seen every now and then in summer on sightseeing flights over Germany. They should be up to 72 meters long, hold up to 24 passengers and be hybrid or purely electric, the first of which is expected to make its maiden flight in two years. Basically, these airships would be small buses or S-Bahn wagons on a large balloon. They will initially be used as a tourist attraction. Be it for tours over Jerusalem, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Mallorca or past Neuschwanstein Castle. That is simply the best way to familiarize people with airships again. “Airships currently exist in a niche that needs to be filled,” says Verba. “But over time this niche will grow.”

Verba does not believe that the airships will make classic scheduled flights superfluous. “We don’t want to compete with the railways either. I believe that large aircraft are very effective over long distances,” says the engineer. Using an airship between Berlin and Hamburg, where there is a fast train connection, is therefore nonsense. But the airships could connect regions to the world of transport that have so far been poorly connected or can only be reached with many transfers. “That would be rural regions, villages in nowhere that have little or no infrastructure,” he says. “Or islands and metropolises divided by the sea, which otherwise can only be crossed by ferries.”

He doesn’t necessarily see the small Atlas Electric Airships flying to them, but rather an ATLANT: a hybrid airship planned in three large sizes similar to the Airlander 10, which is currently in the research and development phase at Atlas. It is to be manufactured with a solid outer shell and the large, around 200-meter-long version will lift up to 165 tons. Transporting well over 100 passengers would not be a problem. “From Berlin to London or from Berlin to Stockholm directly across the water,” he says. “That wouldn’t be a problem and it would be more effective than an airplane.” With a corresponding luxury upgrade, an ATLANT could also replace many cruise ships, and carry passengers over unique routes across the North Pole and exotic islands, just at a greater height. The actual purpose, says Gennadiy Verba, is far less chic, but more useful: heavy transport.

Big ships for big loads

There are no strict limits to the design of airships. They can be small, but also huge. And the bigger they are, the more gas they can hold, the more they can tow. And that makes them real transport machines. With the Airlander 50, Hybrid Air Vehicles is already designing a variant of its airship that is supposed to carry up to 50 tons. In addition, the French start-up Flying Whales is currently working on a 60-ton ship that is designed based on the classic rigid airship. And the very secretive US company LTA Research, which is financed by Google founder Sergey Brin, is researching in this direction. Be it large loads of postal parcels that must be brought across bodies of water. Or vehicles and machinery for mining companies and aid organizations that work far away in otherwise inaccessible regions in the North American wilderness or in villages in African countries. Such airships would be ideal for this.

The largest currently planned variant of Atlas Airships ATLANT should even be able to lift up to 165 tons and, thanks to its flat shell construction, even land on water. “We don’t need much,” says Gennadiy Verba. “A little space is enough to touch down.” Such modern and strong hybrid airships can still land even if airports are destroyed by floods or an earthquake, for example. This should allow dozens of emergency shelters to be safely transported in the event of a disaster. But also, extremely bulky loads that otherwise only get through the streets very slowly and with a great deal of planning: the wings of large wind turbines, steel girders for high-rise structures and rocket steps, for example, which could also be lowered or set up in the assembly position with the safely floating colossus.

According to the airship manufacturer Verba, the fact that an airship may be slower than more traditional means of transport is of no importance. “It doesn’t really matter whether we need longer if we can transport large loads more cheaply and further than a helicopter or an airplane,” he says. “That is a gigantic niche.” This is exactly the opinion of Sergei Bendin, who heads the Russian airship manufacturer Airship Initiative Design Bureau Aerosmena. He is working on a variant of airships that is as unusual as it is strong, which was invented by engineer Orfey Kozlov, who died of the coronavirus in summer 2020.

The aerosmena should be circular and thus remind of flying saucers. An idea that can be traced back to an airship project called Locomosky, once financed by the oil and gas giant Gazprom, to research efforts by Soviet scientists called Thermoplan at the Moscow Aviation Institute. For the latter, “airships for use in Siberia, which is difficult to access and tormented by unstable weather,” should be designed, as Bendin says.

“The saucer shape [developed by the researchers] makes it possible to minimize the sideways twisting of the airship,” explains Bendin in an interview with 1E9. In addition, the airship can be “ballasted more effectively” with this form and can reach up to 250 kilometers per hour. The saucers, which are only partially equipped with a solid cover, will eventually float in four different sizes from Russian construction halls. The smallest should be able to carry up to 20 tons, while the largest 600 tons – be it freight or people. Helium and air heated to 200 degrees Celsius are supposed to provide buoyancy.

According to Sergei Bendin, the research and development work is almost complete. And with a suitable donor, a first 20- and perhaps also a 60-ton model of the UFO airships could take off between 2024 and 2025. There are already enough potential customers for this. “The demand for such aircraft is quite high both in Russia and in the world,” says Bendin. The company is already receiving inquiries from large international companies who, for example, have to regularly deliver heavy and bulky equipment to oil drilling platforms, the transport of which is difficult and very expensive, even with cargo helicopters.

There are sensible and effective ways to use airships in all corners of the world. Big and small. According to Sergei Bendin, the fact that this has not happened so far has to do with a lack of imagination and a willingness to innovate. Airplanes and helicopters would simply be accepted as a given reality of air traffic – as would airfields as places where air traffic takes place. But not airships. In the future, however, airship designers could show that airships are a possibility and an alternative that is entirely justified, especially when it comes to cargo transport. That way, they could “define their role and find a place,” says Bendin. In particular, they could prove to be an economically logical solution for modern aviation. If that works, we could experience the renaissance of “a new generation of airships” by the end of the decade.

Giant visions

Not only the simple logical purposes, their cheap operation and their effectiveness could bring the airships back into the air. But also, climate change as a generation challenge and the pure necessity of lower-emission air traffic. And not only on short routes, where airplanes make little sense, or no airports exist. Scientists at least believe that it is also on the routes that large cargo ships have been using so far. In a 2019 study, an international team of researchers suggested directing airships into the lower reaches of the jet stream, bands of strong winds that orbit the earth in the upper troposphere and stratosphere. The airships would simply be dragged along at heights of ten to 20 kilometers by the strong winds of 160 kilometers per hour and could transport cargo “with less fuel and shorter travel times compared to conventional shipping”.

There are numerous routes that can be completed in astonishingly short periods of time. This also includes city-to-city connections: In the northern hemisphere, the Streamjet could fly directly to Tokyo, Beijing, Istanbul, Lisbon and Washington. “A circumnavigation of the world would take 16 days in the northern hemisphere and 14 days in the southern hemisphere,” the researchers said. In comparison with similar flight and ship connections, the greenhouse gas emissions from an airship would be negligible – and the costs would also be significantly lower. Because energy would almost only have to be used to navigate in and out of the jet stream.

However, the researchers do not see small airships like the ATLANT or the UFO ships from Aerosmena on such routes, but rather absurdly gigantic giants: airships that measure over 2.4 kilometers and carry up to 20,000 tons. The giant ships would have to be filled with hydrogen, which would have to be generated cheaply and completely with renewable energies. That would also be much safer than it was during the Hindenburg era. Modern envelopes protect the gas better and prevent electrical charges in the air. In addition, modern additives make the gas significantly less flammable. Of course, even a modern hydrogen airship would not be entirely without risk. Therefore, the cargo airships could fly autonomously and without a crew. Other cargoes such as helium could be used for passenger ships. Technically speaking, there is nothing against this vision of the future, argue the researchers but also airship designers.

Gennadiy Verba is also convinced that comprehensive climate and environmental protection in harmony with cheap transport and travel options may also need such large airships in the long term to be accessible. “That’s the only way: bigger airships,” he says. However, “the industry has not yet grown up enough” to deliver such titans. “The modern airship industry is young,” he explains. Research has to be done to develop technologies and concepts that make larger airships possible – or simply better airships. The current projects and vehicles would only be a first step on a long way to bring the airships back into aviation. “Airships are no longer an old technology, they are a new technology again today,” says Verba. “But if they are successful (as a new technology), that will be good for all of us.”