Blow for UK airships

Efforts to create a UK airship industry suffered a major setback after Advanced Technologies Group, the UK’s largest manufacturer, went into administration after running out of funds.

Efforts to create a UK airship industry suffered a major setback after Advanced Technologies Group (ATG), the country’s largest manufacturer, went into administration after running out of funds.

The commercial blow coincided with what appears to be an increasing global interest in airship technology, particularly the US, where several major military and civil projects are underway.

Based in Cardington, Beds, ATG has, since 1996, received £30m of investment, achieving international recognition for its ‘lighter-than-air’ (LTA) technology.

Before the cash crisis, ATG planned to construct large-scale airships called SkyCats, capable of carrying a 20-tonne payload.

Company director Gordon Taylor claimed its proposals were technically sound, with money at the heart of its problems.

Taylor said that as of last week, the administrator was in talks with a ‘foreign government organisation’ and three European aerospace companies in a bid to obtain a new cash injection of up to £50m.

‘The challenge for us is funding, not technology,’ said Taylor. ‘As far as we are concerned if someone came to us with an order we are prepared to fulfil the contract.’

Dr David Grace of York University, and project leader of Capanina — a high altitude platform (HAP) initiative to deliver internet to areas without cable access — said ATG had suffered from the unwillingness of investors to think as big as the company itself.

‘Even though it has very good ideas, to an extent ATG is a small outfit. It has excellent technical ability, but people have been less willing to trust the company on large projects,’ said Grace.

The lukewarm reception to LTA initiatives in the UK contrasts with an array of projects underway in the US, from communications to military transport.

Darpa is pursuing a project called Walrus, a giant airship capable of transporting an entire combat brigade to anywhere in the world in less than a week.

At Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, engineers have developed a blimp to carry out persistent surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance in no-man’s land — the area between the 65,000ft ceiling for commercial aircraft and the 100,000ft (20-mile) minimum distance required for low-Earth orbit satellites.

The US Air Force Space Command and Lockheed Martin both have devices close to deployment. Each are approximately 500ft long, radar-carrying surveillance craft designed to hover for months and monitor ground activity.

Lockheed’s craft has been specifically designed to track incoming missiles — and with a 750-mile viewing range, just 10 would be needed to provide missile defence for the entire US coastal region.

Possible military applications have been accompanied by a revival in civilian activity following a downturn after September 11, according to some observers.

Mike Rentell of the Airship Association said tourism is the catalyst, with a number of operators around the world introducing passenger services.

Swiss company Skycruise, which provided surveillance at the Athens Olympics, recently launched airship trips, and Zeppelin — the most famous name in airship history — is in the process of building a new 19-seater dirigible.

According to Grace, growth sectors such as homeland security and the 2012 London Olympics would provide good opportunities for a revival of UK airship technology if domestic investors are prepared to back it.

‘You need to have companies with funding structures in place who are willing to take risks,’ said Grace, adding that the government could help by backing R&D in the field and helping create a consensus that the technology is of value. ‘There is no point in just having technical people working on it — marketing people are needed to say “this is what we can do with this technology”,’ he said.