This Strange Air Vehicle May be the Future of Heavy Lift

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Episode Summary:

Lighter than air flying machines predate the invention of the airplane, and open so the 1930s, were the only practical way to carry passengers are significant payloads over transatlantic distances. The combination of the 1936 Hindenburg disaster and the development of longer-range fixed wing aircraft ended the age of the rigid airship, but a new hybrid type aircraft that combines features of airships and fixed wing aircraft shows promise for heavy lift, long-duration and low carbon flight. Bradford, UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles has developed a production ready aircraft and as recently establish a basis for certification with European aviation authorities, a critical step toward type certification. The company expects their Airlander 10 vehicle to be service ready by 2025. 

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Transcript of this week’s show:

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Sustainability in aviation is a global priority these days, but fir all but short range, small payload operation like air taxis, replacing jet engines is proving to be very difficult. The physics of flight requires a lot of thrust to generate forward motion necessary for aerodynamic lift, and the energy density of fuels like kerosene can’t yet be replaced by technology such as battery electric propulsion. But what if we could disconnect the requirement to lift heavy loads, and leave just propulsion for forward motion? 

That problem was addressed even before the airplane was invented, with airships and until the 1930s, lighter than air transport was the only form of air travel capable of transatlantic flight. Hydrogen was the gas of choice for rigid airships like the Hindenburg, but it’s disastrous crash in 1936 effectively ended later than air as a viable transportation system. Today, that’s changing with new generation of special-purpose airships that use non-flammable helium as the lifting gas. 

Bradford, UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles, has been working on a modern lighter than air aircraft since 2007, and is built a prototype called Airlander 10. Originally an R&D test vehicle, in 2014 the company reengineered the vehicle for civil certification, leading to a first flight in 2016. Now being prepared for production, Airlander 10 is a large vehicle, in fact at 302 feet in length, it is the world’s largest air vehicle. Lift comes from a combination of helium buoyancy, aerodynamic lift and vectored thrust. Projected performance reflects the possibilities of buoyant flight: a five-day airborne endurance, a 10-ton maximum payload at a 4000 nautical mile potential range. Maximum altitude is 20,000 feet, and aircraft can be configured for several purposes, such as passenger and cargo transport as well as communications and surveillance. 

The green credentials of the vehicle come from the nature of buoyant flight. With four combustion engines, the standard air lender 10 will perform similar missions to comparable aircraft with 75% fewer emissions. A hybrid electric aircraft slated for 2025 will offer a 90% emissions reduction, and for fully carbon free flight, the company expects to offer fully electric vehicle for service by 2030. Of course, certification must precede commercial operations, and HAV designs fall between standards design for lighter than aircraft such as blimps, and heavier than air aircraft such as fixed wing airplanes and helicopters. 

As a new class of aircraft, everything from inspection and maintenance to pilot training must be established from scratch, and the recent completion of EU aviation safety agency EASA certification basis standards means that the path to a type certificate is possible for service entry in 2025. Until this time, there were no design rules for hybrid aircraft like Airlander 10. Heavy lift, long loiter times, freedom from complex airport infrastructure and low emissions are a powerful combination. This strange air vehicle might be one answer to the expected explosion in demand for air cargo service in the next decade. 

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.