Could Airships Make A Comeback With New Hybrid Designs?

Airships. Slow, difficult to land, and highly flammable when they’re full of hydrogen. These days, they’re considered more of a historical curiosity rather than a useful method of transport.

Hybrid Air Vehicles are a UK-based startup working to create a modern take on the airship concept. The goal is to create cleaner air transport for short-hop routes, while also solving many of the issues with the airship concept with a drastic redesign from the ground up. Their vehicle that will do all this goes by the name of Airlander 10. But is it enough to bring airships back to the skies?

A Hybrid Technology

Airlander 10 seen taking off during its first flight.

The Airlander 10 is not a lighter-than-air craft like traditional airships. Instead, the vehicle uses the buoyancy from its helium envelope to create only 60-80% of its lift. The rest of the left is generated aerodynamically by air passing over the eliptical shape of the airship’s body. This lift can also be further augmented by two diesel-powered ducted fans on the sides of the airship, which can pivot to assist with takeoff and landing. Two further fixed ducted fans on the rear provide the primary propulsion for the craft.

The hybrid approach brings several benefits over the traditional airship model. Chief among them is that as the Airlander 10 is heavier than air, it need not vent helium throughout flight to avoid becoming positively buoyant as fuel burns off, nor does it need to vent helium to land. However, it still maintains the capability to loiter for incredibly long periods in the sky as it needs to burn very little fuel to stay aloft. Reportedly, it is capable of five days when manned, and even longer durations if operated in an unmanned configuration. Using helium for lift instead of solely relying on engine thrust and wings means that it is much more fuel efficient than traditional fixed-wing airliners. The company’s own estimates suggest the Airlander 10 could slash emissions on short-haul air routes by up to 90%. The gentle take-off and landing characteristics also mean the vehicle doesn’t require traditional airport facilities, making it possible to operate more easily in remote areas, on grass, sand, or even water.

The craft currently uses four diesel-powered ducted fans. An all-electric drive system is in development to further reduce emissions.

There are drawbacks, of course, relative to more conventional air travel. The hybrid airship is only capable of a cruise speed of 148 km/h, far below the roughly 900 km/h of a modern jet airliner. The Airliner 10 is also large – at 91 meters long and 34 meters wide, it’s just as wide as a Boeing 737 and three times as long. Additionally, while it is capable of landing on unprepared flat surfaces, Hybrid Air Vehicles state that a 600m diameter circle is required. This is a significantly large area, and one that means finding a landing spot in many places could prove difficult.

Hybrid Air Vehicles have stated the Airlander 10 will be capable of carrying up to 100 passengers on short haul journeys, just over half of that carried by a modern single-row airliner. One proposed route for a passenger service is the short hop from Belfast to Liverpool. The former takes an hour on a conventional plane, or around 8 to 9 hours by ferry. The Airlander 10 would complete the journey in an estimated 5 hours and 20 minutes. Another proposed route, from Barcelona to Palma de Mallorca, goes much the same way, 1 hour by jet, or 9 hours by boat. The hybrid airship could split the difference at around 4 and a half hours.

Airlander 10 as seen in flight over Cardington.

Hybrid Air Vehicles claim that the added overheads of air travel, such as airport check-in and security clearances, add significantly to the flight time itself, thus giving the Airlander an advantage. However, it’s difficult to understand why their slower-moving air vehicle would be free of these requirements; even sea-going ferries take time to deal with docking and passenger loading.

It’s a slow, graceful thing in flight, as seen in this BBC clip from 2016. Noting the manner in which it takes to the air, the large required landing area could be due to the fact that taking off into the wind is critical for safety. There’s also an amusing story from 2017 in which the prototype craft came loose from its moorings on the morning after a test flight. The emergency deflation system activated when this occurred, with the craft coming to rest at the airfield perimeter. Imagine coming to work one day and the giant airship you’ve been working on is sitting halfway across the airfield from where you left it, with its empty balloon sagging as its stuck on the fence.

Interior designs are renders at this stage, but boast far more room than contemporary passenger aircraft.

The new technology will have to compete with existing cheap flights; fares on airliners can often be had for under £50 on shorthop routes. The lower fuel use of the hybrid airship does help, of course. The Airlander 10 itself cost £25 million pounds to build, in amongst a £140 million development budget for Hybrid Air Vehicles. This pales in comparison to the $300 million or more required to purchase a modern single-aisle airliner. Operating and maintenance costs for four diesel piston engines are likely lower than those for two large jet engines as well. However, existing jet operations have the benefit of being well established and are familiar to the public.

As opposed to the above luxury or sightseeing design, in a more budget-focused role, the Airlander could carry up to 100 passengers.

The hybrid airship’s reliance on helium also tends to raise questions given the scarcity and expense of the element. The Hybrid Air Vehicles website claims that “600 Airlander aircraft would account for just 1% of annual helium consumption.” However, we suspect that calculation may have dropped a zero.  600 Airlander 10 aircraft, each using 38,000 cubic meters of helium, adds up to 22,800,000 million cubic meters of the gas. Roughly 160,000,000 cubic meters of the gas was produced in 2018; back of the envelope calculations would put the real figure somewhere between 10-15% of global supply in 2021. Of course, there aren’t that many Airlander 10 aircraft, with the company planning on building a more modest number of 12 airships a year from 2025. With helium shortages easing, there shouldn’t be any major issues with supply, though someone ought to sort out the maths on the website.

It’s rare for a new mode of transport to have an easy birth; the Channel Tunnel faced turmoil for years once it entered service. Passenger hovercraft once seemed like a silver bullet, too, but have all but faded away in recent decades. Whether or not the hybrid airship concept will become a regular transit link will depend on whether investors pony up the cash to get the concept over the line in the first place. From there, it’s up to operators to find a way to run the craft economically in the face of stiff competition from existing rivals.

101 thoughts on “Could Airships Make A Comeback With New Hybrid Designs?

      1. Exactly, up north (in Canada) many communities are supplied twice a year by sea, and if you don’t order what you need you don’t get it. I can imagine many northern communities being given more critical supplies with this thing, even in winter when the sea isn’t an option.

      2. It’s a fair weather vehicle. A blimp is completely at the mercy of the winds when it really picks up, and ice buildup is a huge problem.

        See USS Akron and Macon. Most airships of old were destroyed in storms, often killing everyone on board. Even if you build them better, the same problems remain: you have a huge ball-shaped kite up in the air with almost no propulsive power to speak of, and almost no rudder authority considering its size. While the risks are mitigated today by real-time weather forecasts, it’s still not a reliable means of transportation any more than a sailing ship is.

        1. Blimps and dirigibles can handle ice loads many times thicker than jet aircraft can. Sure, when it’s 10cm thick ice that’s too much weight, but there were many cases in the 1940s where the blimps were the only things flying during severe icing conditions.
          Severe winds are a huge problem, but mostly for landing. This isn’t reasonable for passenger service but for heavy cargo you could loiter for a day or two until the heavy wind stops and then deliver.

          1. That 10 cm ice is the problem, because it’s a huge slow moving blimp that easily collects any mist from the air which then freezes over the skin.

            It also drops sheets of said ice onto anything below.

          2. Research “Operation Whole Gale” where US Navy airships flew during blizzard conditions in an exercise to support fleet operations. They were the only aircraft flying during the storm. No airship was lost. It was determined, the envelope acted similar to a de-icing boot, due to it’s non rigid, flexible structure. Winds impact the flight of an airship by reducing ground speed. They are highly maneuverable as evidence by the fact they can be certified by the aviation authority to operate IFR (Instrument Flight Rules)of where a high degree of control must be demonstrated to maintain approach azimuth and glide slope accuracy. Most people truly do not understand the airship. Few people have operational experience. Few people have flown in one and many make statements about them that are incorrect, such as “they release helium during flight to control buoyancy or a blimp is ” completely at the mercy of the wind”…etc. The hybrid cargo airship with the ACLS ( Air Cushion Landing System) will open a market, delivering cargo and supplies to remote, underserved communities. They are highly capable, efficient, reliable and, in my opinion have a role to play, especially in view of climate change and a continuing need to deliver goods to remote areas.

        2. “it’s still not a reliable means of transportation any more than a sailing ship is”

          Great analogy. The company has been around for 14 years and here’s the results so far. Asterisk emphasis is mine:

          “The company developed the HAV 3 technology demonstrator. This won it the US Army LEMV contract, in association with Northrop Grumman as the prime contractor, and led to the HAV 304. *Following termination of the LEMV project*, the HAV 304 was rebuilt as the Airlander 10. It is the largest aircraft flying today. The *Airlander 10 was written off in an accident at the mast in 2018*. The company has stated that it will not be rebuilt.”

      3. Interesting application.

        Seeing as this thing probably doesn’t exert much ground pressure when it’s parked, frozen lakes could be a convenient substitute for a prepared landing strip (er.. landing round?),

        And if the volume stays more-or less constant (to keep the aerodynamic shape) the relative buoyancy probably increases in the cold.

  1. Helium supply will not increase ever, the available supply will dwindle increasingly, and it should be saved for cryogenics, where it is absolutely irreplaceable. Hydrogen, OTOH, can be generated with sun and water vapor, and can be oxidized for energy. It is both buoyancy medium and clean fuel. The Hindenburg exploded because the canvas had been treated to become basically a high-explosive, Safety objections are mostly ill-founded.

    1. Interesting, I didn’t know all of this. Hydrogen..Well, the Zeppelin ships were not bad designed.A lot of thought went into them. From what I heard, they were designed with Helium in mind, too. So they could use both Helium and Hydrogen. Problem was, Germany didn’t have enough Helium and the USA (?) didn’t want do export it at the time, which was understandable. The horrible accident of the Hindenburg was very sad, but we must keep in mind, that this air ship and many others survived many previous voyages, also. What really happend that day is still not entirely sure.

      A lightning strike might also havehad contributed to this horrible accident. According to some documentations on TV, the hard turn during the landing maneuver could have had caused a damage on the hull or the inner hydrogen-filled ballons. If that was the case, the lightning strike had an easy play.

      The whole thing reminds m a bit of the of the Titanic accident; in both cases it wasn’t the construction design itself that was faulty. The Titanic had gotten a not so low number of cheap iron bolts, because steel was expensive.The Titanic was never designed for this modification, though. It also had some of its bulkheads removed, so a larger ballroom could be installed. If we consider this, it’s a miracle that both constructions allowed at least a few people to survive. Things could have been much worse, than they already were.The Titanic’s sister, the Olympic, served well for many years to come.

      1. >> Zeppelin ships were … designed with Helium in mind, too. So they could use both Helium
        >> and Hydrogen. Problem was, Germany didn’t have enough Helium and the USA (?) didn’t
        >> want do export it at the time

        The Hindenburg and the GrafZep were initially designed with helium as the preferred gas. In the US, the Akron and Macon had already proved that large airships could work with the heavier, but safer, helium, and there is truth to the story that one of the factors that pushed the Germans to hydrogen was the reluctance of the US to provide helium.

        However, the more important, though less interesting, reason for the change was simple engineering. As design and construction progressed, it was obvious that the ships were coming in heavier than expected and without a dozen extra tons of lift from hydrogen, they would have so little reserve buoyancy that they wouldn’t be able to carry a useful cargo across the ocean

      2. Something I don’t think gets discussed enough about the Hindenburg disaster was that 2/3 of the people on it survived.
        Most of the time, when commercial jets crash, there are no survivors. (This depends heavily on what you count as an accident vs what you count as an incident: there are lots of jets hitting into ground equipment or obstacles while taxiing that are crashes and if you count those, of course most jet crashes harm nobody.) But in-flight, landing, and particularly takeoff crashes have very high mortality rates.

        1. That’s a misconception. The US National Transportation Safety Board found that more than 95% of aircraft occupants survived accidents, including 55% in the most serious incidents.

          1. They do now but earlier aircraft of the time if zeppelins the crash impact zones were not of high concern. There were no fuel safety cut of valves or many other things we take for granted today. Early crashes were touted to be more lethal on take off or landing mainly because it’s the most stress out on the airframe. The stress strain diversity margins were not so high.

      3. It’s touted via new research that the Titanic sank due to a tempered hull near a boiler fire/over fueling…
        she was well designed but the soft patch stood no chance against ice and heavy rain. The rest s catalogue of errors but supposedly had the hull been solid it would never have happened.
        There are photos showing a large deformed area different in colour to the rest of the hull . They were trying to meet time pressures and kept piling the coal in , not putting out the fire outside of a boiler . They took on passengers without repairs and promptly sped on to make the trip in time.
        Sad but health and safety/maritime safety wasn’t such a thing in those days . More proving to investors thus new idea could be on time and on cost.

    2. Airships of old measured their lift gas leakage in the cubic meters per minute. And yet they vented even more to not gain buoyancy due to fuel consumption.

      Most Zeppelins for an example had a fair few air ducts to carry away internal air from around the balloons to mitigate any potential buildup of hydrogen.

      Then the airship of those days were using cotton balloons, silk if one wanted a bit more weight reduction. And then one smeared on a thin layer of rubber paint. This wouldn’t be considered gas tight compared to even simple modern materials.

      Today if we build an actual hydrogen filled airship, aluminized plastic is likely the balloon material of choice. Since it is practically impervious to gas leaking through it. And the air venting around the balloons would still be a thing just to be on the safe side.

      I personally don’t think helium has much going for it these days when it comes to price, buoyancy nor safety.

      Though, some people say “hydrogen will make the aluminium brittle and flake off the plastic film!” forgetting that hydrogen embrittlement is exceptionally slow even at fairly elevated temperatures. For welding, casting and such, hydrogen in the air will embrittle the metal, but down bellow 300 degrees C, it really isn’t much of a long term problem, not the the film would even get much warmer than 80 C to be fair… (otherwise hydrogen gas canisters would be a fairly dumb idea. Though, they do use much thicker metal.)

      1. look up “goldbeaters skins”

        Made from a membrane harvested from the innards of cattle, in the 1930’s this was the preferred lining material for making flexible fabric bags more or less gas-proof against the light hydrogen molecules.

        They got maybe a square meter out of one cow. On the plus side, I suppose you could look at this as finding a use for a material that would otherwise go to waste, but imagine actually doing this for a moment. Being in a hot building next to the blimp hangar, knee deep in cow guts all day long, cleaning out sheets of this membrane.

        Soooooo many thousands of tons of cattle guts were collected, cleaned, and processed to get the acres of membrane needed for the great airships (at least the American and British ones).

    3. “Helium supply will not increase ever”

      This isn’t actually true. At some point we will master the fusion reactor and will be able to make hydrogen into helium. I very much understand what you are saying though, it’s a valuable resource that should not be wasted.

    4. People do not mine for helium. It is a byproduct of the extraction of natural gas. Most of the helium that is extracted is vented into the atmosphere, if they collected it all, the price would tank and it would cost more to compress and bottle than it was worth. Not buying party balloons or investing in Blimps does not change the amount of helium that is extracted from the Earth. If you don’t buy it they will just vent more into the atmosphere. The only way to stop the depletion of Earth’s helium supply is for everyone to stop using natural gas, Good luck with that. When you hear about a helium shortage usually it has nothing to do with how much helium is left or how much is being extracted, science needs 100 percent pure helium, and there are only some many refineries that can make helium that pure. If demand exceeds their maximum output then there is a shortage of pure scientific grade helium. Not buying party balloons doesn’t fix this ,they are totally unrefined helium, like 90 percent pure

    5. What about a mixture of the two?
      H2 gas bags that sit inside of the helium filled ‘main’ bag. Only when the He bag is deflated up to a point that air enters, will the H2 be at risk of burning.

        1. Hydrogen is notoriously explosive in almost any blend when oxygen is available. Flammability is between 4% to 75% in air, and the detonation limit goes from 18.3% to 59%.

          1. That’s right – it’s possible to make hydrogen go like proper explosives with a detonation wave traveling faster than the speed of sound in a free mixture with air. Instead of going down in a ball of fire like the Hindenburg, there is a case that the entire thing goes BANG and anything or anyone in close vicinity turns into shrapnel.

          2. So are you saying that if there’s a blend of 1% H2 to 99% He, and air (21% O2 78% N2) is admitted, that this would be an explosive mixture?

            If not, what is the proportion of H2 to He that would be explosive if air is admitted?

            My point being that you could get a safe mixture, more lift, and less expensive to boot.

            Secondly, inside this bag, you could include a bladder of pure H2. As this is totally isolated from the air, it would be quite safe.

          3. >So are you saying

            No. Obviously if you dilute it enough, it stops burning. You’ll probably need much more helium than hydrogen though – a 50/50 mixture of H2 and He would still be flammable in air. The gas bags are too thin to keep hydrogen from diffusing into the helium bag and vice versa.

  2. So, how many companies have tried to make exactly the same design work now?

    There was Cargolifter in Germany (built a giant hanger, which is now a tropical swimming pool/spa resort but that was about it).
    There’s Worldwide Aeros Corp building basically the same thing.
    And then there’s this company that was basically using the prototype built by the US army for the LEMV program before it got destroyed in 2017 and is now desperately trying to convince people to give them money to build another one.
    I’m sure I’m forgetting another one.

    What’s the point? These airships are really a solution looking for a problem.

    1. What’s the point? There’s a Malaysian-owned tropical theme resort in an old blimp hanger just 40 miles out of Berlin in the Spreewald?!? I almost don’t care what the point _was_ the result is so wacky.

      No, but I think you’re right. The things travel significantly slower than trains, at about the same (environmental) cost, so they can’t beat them anywhere there are rails. And while it’d be hella cool to take a slow blimp ride when the weather’s clear, and even if you factor in all the airport hassle, it’s hard to justify taking a five-hour vs one-hour flight, cost be damned.

      Which leaves freight over routes where the land/sea/land transitions are a PITA. Maybe that’s the niche?

      1. ” And while it’d be hella cool to take a slow blimp ride when the weather’s clear, and even if you factor in all the airport hassle, it’s hard to justify taking a five-hour vs one-hour flight, cost be damned.”

        I think the phrase we’re looking for is “taking a cruise”. Where it’s all about the journey and the unique view being part of that.

        1. Airship cruising is one of these things that I suspect will some day happen.

          Like there is plenty of space on board, and setting up a few different activity rooms would be somewhat simple.

          Not to mention that airships have historically been seen as remarkably stable. For an example, there is many historic accounts of people not even noticing that they suddenly weren’t at the airport, but rather a good bit on their journey.

          So putting up a bowling ball court or a pool table would be fairly simple. Activities that don’t really work on a train or typical airplane. And ships? Well, they only go at sea, so no fancy views of the landscape from above there…

          Cursing and supply missions seems to be their nieces.

          Or transporting odd bulky cargo that doesn’t easily fit on anything else, or as to take some odd journey not easily made on the ground or sea. As long as it doesn’t weigh a lot.

      2. I think the real point as a practical use case (over a very valid leisure use case) comes in when these things have proven controllable enough to do massive loads to tiny airstrips – your helicopter replacement almost – as its more like a jumbo, but with the small landing footprints more akin to that of a heavy lift heli..

        Fixed wing heavier than air craft just can’t get bigger, or lift much more than they do already (at least not within all the various rules around noise etc) – as it stands many of the current crop of jets are far to big to land at most airports.

        But this lighter than air style model offers heavy lift to almost anywhere there is a big enough field, body of water (frozen or with a barge) with some ground crew. Yes they are still huge in human terms, but much more viable over long distances than the fuel hogs that are the aerofoils faster than the fuselage of a helicopter, able to take heavier and larger loads than them too. Its a viable (probably, at least on paper) middle ground between the big jet that can’t land anywhere but the largest airports, and the short field capable smaller planes and helicopters that just don’t carry near as much.

        1. But they’re only “controllable” on small airstrips when there’s no wind. Otherwise you have to mind your direction of approach and you need a 360 degree clearance around the mooring point because you have to park down wind.

          And if you don’t want the ship turning around when the wind changes direction, you need a blimp hangar.

          1. I did say proven controllable, but that isn’t as bad as you make out, wind effects matter more but are still manageable in more balloon like objects, especially with the compact and high performance motors of today – the original airships functioned quite well even in reasonably high winds and by todays standards have no motive power at all.

            And I would expect the required room around them is still bugger all compared to just the wingspan accommodation required for comparable fixed wings, and even the shortest take of and landing aircraft need more than that in runway length..

            Don’t need a blimp hangar at all – just to tether to multiple points and suddenly it won’t rock and roll with the wind…

      3. When Zeppelins were being designed, even then they were considered a solution for niche situations: extended loiter and heavy equipment delivery to remote locations. Hugo Eckener, who ran Zeppelin GmBH after Count Zeppelin’s death, never intended to compete with aircraft, but concentrated on the areas where he thought huge slow aircraft would do well: elegant monthlong tours of the Arctic and ultra long distance services.
        It’s possible that various countries already have lighter than air observation stations loitering at 90,000 feet watching their borders. Aviation Week has discussed this before.

      4. I would very happily take a 5 hour flight if boarding is akin to boarding a ferry or train if it saves me from having to go through the rigmarole of airports. That 600m landing disc though… suggests boarding wouldn’t be akin to boarding a ferry or train.

    2. It’s probably because these companies are in constant prototype mode and investor searching from what I can gather. They need to start a route and use that for testing and gain some income that would surely add some confidence and help with figuring out logistics.

    1. Yeah, John McPhee wrote “The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed” about a helium filled lifting body design, prototype, and several attempts to commercialize the design, in 1973, and the design was at least 15 years old at that point, and probably not the original attempt at a light lifting body.

          1. There is plenty of records showing that airships got into all sorts of accidents.

            Be it running aground due to the navigation tools at the time. (surprisingly often, since airships don’t fly all that high above the sea.)
            Or going ablaze due to an engine failure.

            But going out into actual storms were though one of the ways they failed. And not storms as in bad weather and a fair bit of wind or hail. But rather storms as in hurricanes, tornados, and other such events.

            If we also forget all the ones that got shot down during WWII, apparently, airships were fairly formidable at sinking subs at sea. Since they were somewhat cheap to operate, had good visibility, and were surprisingly hard to shoot down. (Since putting a hole in a balloon that doesn’t contain any real pressure apparently doesn’t do much, and it is somewhat easily patched. And gas needed to be vented regardless to keep up with the with the weight reduction from burning fuel…)

            Though, these days we would likely just shoot a missile at it. Would pop it as a whole fairly effectively.

  3. I’d be up for trying this out. Not that I do much travelling any more but when I did it was to visit parents near Exeter, UK from a starting point near Manchester, UK. The options were a 5 hour train ride with questionable seat availability for £100 or a 30 minute flight with the usual 2 hours of security and waiting for £80. If this could combine the guaranteed seat of the plane, be maybe a little faster than the train and have enough space to get work done it’s a winner.

  4. The helium usage estimate is probably based on the airships not needing a complete refresh of helium every year. It sounds like perhaps they’re estimating replenishing 10% of their helium each year. That probably makes sense for their ongoing helium requirements.

  5. The check in time does help the airships, even if they still need some checks.

    Your comparison gives a 1h plane flight vs a 5.5h airship flight. With checkin and security, that becomes maybe 3h for plane, vs 7.5h for airship – suddenly it’s only twice the time, not 5x.

    1. Sort of similar to the issue with sub-orbital rockets for high-speed travel, only in the other direction, where most of the time saved in transit is lost in getting to and from the spaceports.

    2. There may be lower security requirements for these, as there are with passenger trains, insofar as these have a lot less kinetic energy. This would be like a bumblebee trying to knock over a building if it were hijacked.

  6. Can hydrogen be mixed with helium or some other inert gas (nitrogen?) to reduce it’s flammability? Also imagine crashing in this thing, “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain, the engines have stalled, please brace for crash!”, BOING!!, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have crashed, please disembark in an orderly fashion and have a nice day.”

    1. In a big accident that lets it out the difference between hitting something hard and becoming a very twisted mess (being of lightweight construction in a major accident that is inevitable) and being a twisted mess on fire isn’t all that much… Might harm a few more bystanders, break some windows if it explodes over just burning (which being hydrogen it really might), but ultimately its a major accident any way you cut it – and like any train or plane disaster because its mass transit type stuff, and often in built up areas it is going to terrible on the injuries and dead every time no matter what.

      Worrying about how severe the worst case scenario is for all these things really not the right approach, as by their nature the best case in such an accident is about as bad as the worst. So what you should be worried about is making it as idiot proof as possible to prevent those failures – and part of that is making it cheap enough that it creates the economies of scale, which then makes keeping a vast number of skilled maintenance workers and spare parts etc a crucial and affordable part of the business. And as Helium is a very limited resource, where hydrogen is basically limitless…

      Any little leak and fire assuming proper safety measures in the design really shouldn’t matter much at all, oh no X% of our lifting gas has escaped and made a little mess of the ship, but the rest is all tucked up nice and safe so we will at worst as you so colourfully put it go “BOING!!”. Probably cost rather more to repair than the owners would like, but that might not be a bad thing – its only going to take the threat of one massive repair bill to keep the maintenance levels properly high.

      1. “break some windows if it explodes over just burning (which being hydrogen it really might)”
        Is something I would have to disagree with.

        Firstly, if hydrogen leaks out from the balloon, then it really needs to leak a lot for it to be dangerous. Hydrogen at low concentrations doesn’t burn all that well.

        And same goes for air leaking into the balloon. A hell of a lot needs to enter it for it to be a problem.

        Just some casual gas monitoring can indicate a severe leak long before it is a short term safety problem.

        In a crash, getting the gas in the balloons to mix with air would be an odd event to be fair. The volumes are fairly huge and mixing gas is a relatively slow process at these scales. Ie, it logically couldn’t explode. And fire would only really happen at the boundary between the hydrogen cloud and the surrounding air. It would be one heck of a fire ball, but not an explosion.

        And if one looks at the Hindenburg disaster. Then only 35 out of the 97 onboard perished in the accident. With better safety equipment, the situation would have probably been a noticeable bit better. And compared to an airplane crash, then the Hindenburg isn’t much of a disaster.

        1. You are quite correct in a general sense, but as Hydrogen is one of a few gasses with very very wide explosive mix windows its very much more possible than with most gasses for mixing to go explosive.

          So in the event of a real crash, the high energy impact helps distribute and mix the now leaking bags with the air and likely provides the rather low activation energy to make it go bang either directly or by exposing electrics. And because it doesn’t need to be anywhere near as perfect a ratio to go bang as most other gases its bound to happen sometimes…

          I wouldn’t expect it to explode the whole airship at once, not even close for the reason you state its going to take time to mix still, and with the volume of lifting gas in one of these things if you did let it all out and mixed up for one single explosion it would do way way more than just break a few windows, but getting a smaller explosive mix from such a large accident is fairly likely IMO, and may cause chain reactions of other pockets of gas now explosively mixed – again possible because Hydrogen doesn’t need to be at exactly x% plus or minus 1% or so to be able to explode, its range is so vast…

          I do agree a flamethrower like effect around the leaks is most likely, but because of that wide range of mixes to get a good bang it is more likely to happen here than say a fuel tank explosion – as that needs a comparatively very narrow ratio of fuel vapour to air – which is why burning cars almost never explode, but sometimes they do.

          1. “detonation limits narrower, from 18.3% to 59% at atmospheric pressure”

            So you’d have to admit 40% of air into your pure H2 bag before an explosion were possible.
            This should be quite easy to measure with an O2 detector, and do something about it before getting anywhere near the danger zone.

          2. Its not just about letting air in, but Hydrogen out – with the huge volumes and potentially higher internal pressure (its a bag in the sun) helping push it out of a leak getting an explosive mix outside the skin is quite possible.

            Also inside a confined environment just having enough oxygen to burn at all can be enough – little burning raises temperature, raises pressure and changes the chemistry of combustion, as well as potentially just outright ‘exploding’ because that initial increase in the pressure is enough that the container can’t take it and fails somewhere. Its not at all an ‘ideal’ explosion at that point, but still spreading all the unburned ‘fuel’ violently so it might go bang more impressively later…

            I am definitely not saying however Hydrogen should never ever be used, its a very sensible choice for many things, and can definitely be used safely enough. But it is also a risk that needs understanding and managing, or using in situations where it matters not at all – like the weather balloons, why are they He lifted… Its a small volume carrying some electronics until it gets high enough to burst, basically zero risk to anybody after launch, and the human doing the launch would have be rather careless to put themselves at any real risk.

  7. There is a much better use case for these things and that is overnight travel. Replace all the seats with sleeping pods and leave at 10:00p to arrive somewhere between 4 and 10 AM. But the trick is if you arrive at 4 let people sleep until morning (see silent landing).

  8. To me, it seems like connecting remote areas is an ideal use case for these. In northern parts there are areas that are cut off, except for air travel, all summer long (in winter there are ice roads). Prices for fresh foods are prohibitive, due to the cost of air freight. These would make an excellent intermediate cost option between air freight and wait for winter to truck things in.

    1. With how long the airship takes to move, and how often it needs to stay down because of weather, “fresh food” is not an option unless you tolerate huge transit losses.

      1. If it can cover 1000km in a day, it’ll be able to get some fresh foods. Not all of them, definitely some.
        Refrigeration is also easy – just let some cold air into the storage hold.

  9. A lightweight digital grand piano in the lounge, no need for an aluminum casting like the Hindenburg had. Progress. A seventy something who survived said she would go again.

    The Hindenburg went down because of a little clock. Not the “bomb” in the movie but the one worn on the wrist of American management not the crew. Hurry up and die.

    1. Yes, you could say that. Technically (from what has been recently learned, as shown in the recent episode of Nova), the skin was a giant Leyden jar (a monster capacitor), and the charge time from when they first let down the wet landing ropes to the first fire was about right to accumulate sufficient charge to start it sparking all over. At that point all it took was a hydrogen leak anywhere. The skin being basically painted with thermite was a mere bonus.

      But none of that would have happened if it wasn’t for the rush to land and keep the storm from holding the future schedule back. My only question is was the management really Americans? I would have expected it to be Germans. Whichever it was, “go fever” was what enabled the disaster.

  10. The airship concept surfaces on a regular basis. It’s superficially inspiring and likely leads to a trickle of investment in to the start-ups. But over the past 4 decades airships (both rigid and not) have proven unsuitable for everything from heavy cargo, heavy lift, radio relay, and passenger transport. It’s a cool idea unfailingly torpedoed by the engineering details that make it utterly impractical.

  11. The slowness of these things (airspeed-wise) could be an advantage.
    You rise to the altitude where the wind is carrying you roughly in the direction you want to go in, then it’s a free ride.
    In the jetstream that could be quite fast.

  12. There was a great documentary with the video footage. I think lightening may have ignited it, but the canvas hull burned off at a rate that qualified it as a high explosive, according to the video analysis. This they traced to a new treatment for the canvas. Oops! I think it was a Nova Documentary.

    1. You should go watch it again, because it didn’t need lightning, just the atmospheric charge that causes lightning. A good chunk of the show was new evidence about how the the canvas was attached to the frame, turning it in a big capacitor. It charged from the ground through the wet landing ropes until it was strong enough to start sparking across the air gap between the skin and the frame… all over the airship. The paint let it burn faster after a hydrogen leak caught fire, and the paint had been known for a while to be basically thermite. It also might have formed a big capacitor plate by being conductive.

  13. Seeing that helium is coming out of natural gas exploration, it is probably not such a green technology. Helium takes an extremely long time to be created through radioactive decay. Airships all seem to have the same disadvantages that made them obsolete in the first place.

    One thing that gets missed all the time when we talk about reducing reliance on fossil fuels is the many other products that come on of the production of fossil fuels. Helium is a byproduct of natural gas production. If we start moving away from natural gas and oil, the products that are produced today as byproducts will become way more expensive.

    We talk about reducing the use of gasoline but do not take into account all of the other products we use that come out of the same refining process.

    My neighbor was bragging the other day about his electric car and I told him to think about where that electricity came from and asked him where he got the propane that heats his house.

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