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Quietly planning the return of the blimp

There are few technologies that have been the subject of more prophesied resurgences than the airship.

Indeed, it seems that barely a year goes by without someone heralding the rebirth of this most compelling form of transport. And yet, for many, the fiery demise of the Hindenburg in 1937 continues to cast a shadow over the technology’s credibility.

The engineers we speak to in our current Big Story sketch out a bold plan that they believe could finally unlock the potential of the blimp and bring to life the long-held dream of a worldwide network of civilian airships.

The concept behind the Multibody Advanced Airship for Transport (MAAT) project is hugely ambitious. The team, which includes a number of UK engineers, envisages the development of giant motherships permanently cruising at altitude and picking up cargo from smaller airships that will rise up to meet it from the city or town below.

It’s pretty mind-boggling stuff, although some might say no more far fetched than two other prominent transport schemes that have been in the news in recent weeks: ’Boris Island’ and HS2.

Whether or not MAAT and the prospect of giant discs hovering above the world’s cities is a step too far into the realms of science fiction, airship technology is, without doubt, of increasing interest to the defence sector.

The ability of airships to stay aloft for days or even weeks without using much energy makes them an extremely attractive option for surveillance operations and a number of major defence firms are now seriously examining their potential.

“Whether or not they are science fiction, airships are, without doubt, of increasing interest to the defence sector”

One of the most promising of these projects is Northrop Grumman’s LEMV (Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle), a giant hybrid airship, bristling with reconnaissance equipment that could stay aloft for months. LEMV is being developed for Northrop by UK firm Hybrid Air Vehicles, which is based at Cardington, former base of the Royal Airship Company and birthplace of the UK’s aborted civil airship programme. It’s both intriguing and reassuring that, more than 80 years after the demise of the UK’s official airship programme, engineers at the spiritual home of the UK airship are still quietly planning the return of the blimp.

Meanwhile, our special report looking at the challenge of aerial refuelling for UAVs is a useful reminder of why airships are so attractive for military applications. Currently the staple vehicle for reconnaissance and surveillance, UAVs are heavily restricted by the amount of fuel they can carry and solving this challenge is, as we report, incredibly tough.

Readers' comments (18)

  • There is no obstacle, except one, for the return of the airship or blimp as a viable
    transport alternative.
    The 'one', and it is major, is the vulnerability to terrorist attack. One SAM should do it.

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  • The big down side to airship in the military field is that the are just too slow and a bit of a 'barn door' target for even moderately sophisticated enemy!

    Non-military use sounds interesting - but did hear that the supply of helium is somewhat in short supply at the moment(?)

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  • I wonder what Goodyear would say about the "return" of the blimp. Goodyear has had blimps in service on and off since 1925. One has the endurance record of 11 days aloft.

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  • Historically, the largest problem with lighter than air is that the ships are very difficult to handle in any sort of wind or storm condition. They are very slow (10-15 knots at best) and often lose distance over the ground because if this. I shall be very surprised if these hurdles can be overcome. The US dirigible Shenandoah was wrecked in a storm because of this problem.

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  • Synthetic Chlorophyl to formic acid under roof. -Formic acid catalytically to hydrogen to re- float & fuel engines.
    Could be very green way to get freight traffic off the roads

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  • It would be a pity if "the fiery demise of the Hindenburg..." is still a negative factor as you suggest. Helium has overcome this problem before most readers were born ! Bigger issues are the slow speed, susceptibility to weather and difficulty of mainenance. Maybe for some specialist lifts this could work but I doubt as a means of mass transport.

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  • 1) Biggest cost of moving an airship is drag. Long been proven with math that the Hindenberg shape is most efficient. Don't expect anything different (saucers, triangles etc.) for one that needs to move any distance.
    2) Prime problem with any airship is re-ballasting when the cargo or fuel load changes. Drop a 200 ton load or burn a load of fuel, and the ship wants to rapidly pop up into the stratosphere. Helium is too short in supply and expensive to simply release to compensate. Even hydrogen is a cost problem, though readily available.

    I know how to solve these issues, contact me if you have $300 million in development funds.

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  • I once saw the Goodyear airship pitching about pretty alarmingly in not much more than a normal breeze (at gound level anyway). The sight did nothing to restore my confidence in these things and I was only too glad I wasn't actually up there in it being tossed around like a cork in a tsunami.

    I don't know if there's any sort of 'Coefficient of Control' in aero-speak? What I mean by that is 'an objective measurement of the relationship of the forces available to the pilot for controlling the aircraft over the relevant moments of inertia of the aircraft being controlled'. But if there is, I suspect a Spitfire would have had quite a high C of C, whereas a blimp would be not far off zero.

    And that sums up why I shan't be buying any shares in any resurrected SuperBlimp; not, that is, unless somebody comes up with a control mechanism capable of damping that horrible pitching I saw being exhibited by the Goodyear.

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  • I can't believe the editorial team are enthusiastic about this 'load of hot air' but decry the HS2 project as unnecessary and a waste of time and money! Get real please!

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  • Most of the problems have already been overcome, so why shoudn't they return. How about surveillance for Police and other bodies, or overhead camera platforms for high speed sporting events. There are numerous applications with a little thought.

    People assume they have to be manned, but with modern electronic control systems they can be remotely operated. This leads to smaller and lighter airships designed for a job of work with virtually no risks. Solar power is an option for low voltage control systems and the maintenance of such systems.

    There are plenty of applications for such airships, and all without fossil fuelled propulsion and unmanned.

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  • I understand that Hydrogen was not the problem with Hindenburg but it was the rocket fuel used to coat the covering of the airship which burned.
    Hydrogen would have escaped vertically and burned above the ship even though it may well have exploded in the canopy, once released it would be off skywards.
    Airspeed, drag, drift etc would all be problems unless the vehicle could vary its weight during flight allowing controlled dive manouvers.

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  • Helium has about twice the density of Hydrogen, so one might imagine that it is much less effective at providing buoyancy for an airship. But the important factor is the difference in density between air and the gas in the envelope. In fact, Helium provides about 93% as much lift as Hydrogen for a given volume, and is far safer as everyone knows.

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  • We should save helium for the tasks where it is irreplacable.

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  • This is particular answer to Mr Len Gould, comment from 16 November.

    1) Could you, please, tell me, where have you seen mathematical proof that the classical shape is the most efficient?

    There are shapes like saucers, short wings, etc, which are much more stable even in high wind and have quite a low drag coefficient. And I have never came across any work, which stated that elliptical shape with fins in the back is the most efficient in terms of drag.

    If you could give me details of any such publication I will be grateful.

    2) Talking about compensating the changes of cargo, burning fuel, etc, there are several technologies (already used in manufacturing new cargo airships), which allows compensating changes of weight of the airship very cheap and easy and it does not require loosing any of precious helium or hydrogen.

    If you are interested in this topic, please, contact me any time and we will be able to have a nice discussion.

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  • A while back, through this august organ, we were promised the return of clippers and now airships as well! The future is suddenly looking like a lot nicer place to be.

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  • Anyone with a love of airships and sci-fi together should read Alistair Reynold's 'Terminal World', they'll love it...

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  • Are the Steampunks taking over Futureering?

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  • @Emmett
    Goodyear have just retired one of their gondolas...

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