Lofty aspirations for the airship

Here at The Engineer we have been scouring the history books quite a lot recently, and it is fascinating to chart the evolution of technology’s success stories, also-rans and never-weres.

The airship is an interesting example of a technology generally found floating somewhere between the last two categories.



Particular promise

Balloons and airships have intrigued engineers for centuries. Dirigibles, or steerable powered airships, seemed to hold particular promise, either as passenger craft or carriers of heavy cargo.


Could the airship rival the aircraft as the commercial workhorse of the skies? History’s answer came this week with the triumphant arrival of the Airbus A-380 at Heathrow, confirming the latter’s absolute mastery.

History’s verdict on airships can be summed up in the main as a series of disasters — most notably the loss of the UK‘s R101and, most famously of all, the Hindenburg.

The airship has survived mostly in the rather undignified form of the advertising blimp, hovering over sporting events to provide an aerial view for television.

In this light, it is interesting that the cover feature of this issue of The Engineer suggests that the airship just might have found its place in the world.

The work underway in the US by major players such as Lockheed could result in a fleet of airships floating high in the stratosphere and playing a key role in future communications networks.

UK engineers are also investigating the application of advanced communications technologies to airships. The arrival of advanced technologies in areas such as materials, structures and propulsion could revolutionise design of the craft themselves.



Bright future


Taking all this into account, it is not too difficult to imagine that the airship could have a brighter future than its past suggests. After all, unlike aircraft they can stay aloft for long periods, and the US engineers hope to extend this into the realm of months at a time. Unlike satellites, they don’t require the massive infrastructure and expense of a space launch.

It would be heartening to see one of history’s Cinderella technologies finally being invited to the ball.



Many thanks to the hundreds of readers who have viewed the archive material made available on the internet as part of our 150th anniversary celebrations. We hope you enjoyed reading the articles. To those who have not yet done so, we urge you to visit www.theengineer.co.uk/150years to read the magazine’s original account of events such as the sinking of the Titanic, the birth of television and the first Rover car.


Andrew Lee
Editor
The Engineer & The Engineer Online