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. Continue reading “Could Airships Make A Comeback With New Hybrid Designs?”

Ground Effect Drone Flies Autonomously

There are a number of famous (yet fictional) sea monsters in the lakes and oceans around the world, but in the Caspian Sea one turned out to be real. This is where the first vehicles specifically built to take advantage of the ground effect were built by the Soviet Union, and one of the first was known as the Caspian Sea Monster due to the mystery surrounding its discovery. While these unique airplane/boat hybrids were eventually abandoned after several were built for military use, the style of aircraft still has some niche uses and can even be used as a platform for autonomous drones.

This build from [Think Flight] started off as a simple foam model of just such a ground effect vehicle (or “ekranoplan”) in his driveway. With a few test flights the model was refined enough to attach a small propeller and battery. The location of the propeller changed from rear-mounted to front-mounted and then back to rear-mounted for the final version, with each configuration having different advantages and disadvantages. The final model includes an Arudino running an autopilot program called Ardupilot, and with an air speed sensor installed the drone is able to maintain flight in the ground effect and autonomously navigate pre-programmed waypoints around a lake at high speed.

For a Cold War technology that’s been largely abandoned by militaries in favor of other modes of transportation due to its limited use case and extremely narrow flight tolerances, ground effect vehicles are relatively popular as remote controlled vehicles. This RC ekranoplan used the same Ardupilot software but paired with a LIDAR system instead of GPS to navigate its way around its environment.

Thanks to [TTN] for the tip!

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Flapping Wings And The Science Of How Bees Can Fly

Jerry Seinfeld launched his career with Bee Movie, an insect-themed animated feature that took the world by storm in 2007. It posed the quandary – that supposedly, according to all known laws of aviation, bees should not be able to fly. Despite this, the bee flies anyway, because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible.

The quote isn’t easily attributed to anyone in particular, but is a cautionary tale about making the wrong assumptions in an engineering context. Yes, if you model a bee using the same maths as an airliner, of course you’ll find that it shouldn’t be able to fly. Its tiny wings can’t possibly generate enough lift to get its body off the ground. But that’s because the assumption is an erroneous one – because bees don’t fly in the same way planes do. Bees flap their wings. But that’s just the beginning. The truth is altogether more complex and interesting! Continue reading “Flapping Wings And The Science Of How Bees Can Fly”

The V-Bomber Ejector Seat Controversy

Once upon a time, bailing out of a plane involved popping open the roof or door, and hopping out with your parachute, hoping that you’d maintained enough altitude to slow down before you hit the ground. As flying speeds increased and aircraft designs changed, such escape became largely impossible.

Ejector seats were the solution to this problem, with the first models entering service in the late 1940s. Around this time, the United Kingdom began development of a new fleet of bombers, intended to deliver its nuclear deterrent threat over the coming decades. The Vickers Valiant, the Handley Page Victor, and the Avro Vulcan were all selected to make up the force, entering service in 1955 through 1957 respectively. Each bomber featured ejector seats for the pilot and co-pilot, who sat at the front of the aircraft. The remaining three crew members who sat further back in the fuselage were provided with an escape hatch in the rear section of the aircraft with which to bail out in the event of an emergency.

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Fuel Cell Drone Aims For Extended Flight Times

The RC world was changed forever by the development of the lithium-polymer battery. No longer did models have to rely on expensive, complicated combustion engines for good performance. However, batteries still lack the energy density of other fuels, and so flying times can be limited. Aiming to build a drone with impressively long endurance, [Игорь Негода] instead turned to hydrogen power.

The team fitted a power meter to the plane, aiming a camera at it to measure power draw during flight.

With a wingspan of five meters, and similar length, the build is necessarily large in order to carry the hydrogen tank and fuel cell that will eventually propel the plane, which uses a conventional brushless motor for propulsion. Weighing in at 6 kilograms, plenty of wing is needed to carry the heavy components aloft. Capable of putting out a maximum of 200W for many hours at a time, the team plans to use a booster battery to supply extra power for short bursts, such as during takeoff. Thus far, the plane has flown successfully on battery power, with work ongoing to solve handling issues and determine whether the platform can successfully fly on such low power.

We’re eager to see how the project develops, particularly in regards to loiter time. We can imagine having a few pilots on hand may be necessary with such a long flight time planned — other drones of similar design have already surpassed the 60-minute mark. Video after the break.

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Custom Strain Gauges Help Keep Paraglider Aloft

No matter what they’re flying, good pilots have a “feel” for their aircraft. They know instantly when something is wrong, whether by hearing a strange sound or a feeling a telltale vibration. Developing this sixth sense is sometimes critical to the goal of keeping the number of takeoff equal to the number of landings.

The same thing goes for non-traditional aircraft, like paragliders, where the penalty for failure is just as high. Staying out of trouble aloft is the idea behind this paraglider line tension monitor designed by pilot [Andre Bandarra]. Paragliders, along with their powered cousins paramotors, look somewhat like parachutes but are actually best described as an inflatable wing. The wing maintains its shape by being pressurized by air coming through openings in the leading edge. If the pilot doesn’t maintain the correct angle of attack, the wing can depressurize and collapse, with sometimes dire results.

Luckily, most pilots eventually develop a feel for collapse, sensed through changes in the tension of the lines connecting the wing to his or her harness. [Andre]’s “Tensy” — with the obligatory “McTenseface” surname — that’s featured in the video below uses an array of strain gauges to watch to the telltale release of tension in the lines for the leading edge of the wing, sounding an audible alarm. As a bonus, Tensy captures line tension data from across the wing, which can be used to monitor the performance of both the aircraft and the pilot.

There are a lot of great design elements here, but for our money, we found the lightweight homebrew strain gauges to be the real gem of this design. This isn’t the first time [Andre] has flown onto these pages, either — his giant RC paraglider was a big hit back in January.

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Floppy Disks Still Used To Update 747 Flight Software

For garden variety daily computing tasks, the floppy disk has thankfully been a thing of the past for quite some time. Slow, limited in storage and easily corrupted, few yearn for the format to return, even if there is some lingering nostalgia for the disks. As it turns out, though, there is still hardware that relies on floppies – namely, the Boeing 747-400, as The Register reports.

The news comes from the work of Pen Test Partners, who recently inspected a 747 being retired as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The floppy disks are used to load navigational databases which need to be updated regularly, every 28 days. Engineers responsible for loading updates must perform the process manually on the ground.

Efforts have been made in some areas to replace the disks with more modern technology. As Aviation Today covered in 2014, legacy aircraft often require updates involving up to eight floppy disks, leading to slow updates that can cause flight delays. As anyone familiar with the reliability of floppy media knows, it only takes one bad disk to ruin everything. While retrofits are possible, it’s more likely that airlines will simply stick with the technology until the legacy airplanes are retired. Certifying new hardware for flight is a major cost that is difficult to justify when the current system still works.

Floppies continue to cling to relevance, even if for most of us it’s simply as the save icon. We’ve also seen floppies used as an even more inefficient method of data entry. It turns out you can even fit an entire podcast on one, too!