Transport innovation of the week: hybrid airships

Last week we were driving through Bedfordshire, and in the distance I saw the unmistakable shape of the Cardington Sheds – the two huge green hangars in the countryside not far from where I live. Over the past few years they have served as movie sets to Star Wars and Batman. They have hosted indoor model airplane competitions, as they have one of the highest ceilings in the country. They are so big that for decades the Building Research Establishment built entire houses inside them and then burnt them down, as a way of testing different materials.

All of these are useful things, but none of them are the true purpose of the Cardington sheds. 100 years ago, their huge indoor spaces were used to build airships. And today, they are being used for airships again.

Airships, you may remember, briefly owned the skies. They were built for military and civilian purposes in the early 20th century, used as bombers in the First World War, and in the post-war period it looked as if they might become a mainstream form of transport. They were quicker than traveling by ship, which was the main alternative. And then, just as they were getting started, planes made them obsolete. Planes and a series of dramatic accidents that undermined all confidence in them. Among those accidents was the fireball that ended R101, which was built at Cardington. For the next few decades airships were reserved for scientific experiments and the Goodyear blimp – also built at Cardington.

Over the years, a variety of companies have tried to revive interest in airships. There have been plenty of attempts to rekindle the romance of it as a slow and gentle way to travel, now safer and more reliable. Most of these stories end in bankruptcy. And now someone else is having a go. Cardington is currently home to Hybrid Air Vehicles, who are are testing their enormous Airlander 10 at the moment. There’s a lot of interest in it around here, especially since it has been partly crowdfunded and people have been able to be part of the story. So far the tests haven’t gone very well – a minor accident set the team back last year, and it’s only just come out of its hangar again after a few months.

Across the Atlantic and in direct competition with HAV is Lockheed Martin’s LMH-1, an almost identical airship. They have the advantage of being a very large company, and they’ve already had the first commercial order – 12 of them please, for a company called Straightline Aviation.

What this new generation of freight airships have in common is that they are hybrids. They combine airship technology with airplane and hovercraft technology. This overcomes one of the big obstacles to airships in the past: they needed mooring masts and ground crews. Hybrid airships have an air cushion like a hovercraft, and that enables them to land on the ground to unload. They don’t need the crew to run out and peg them down, because they put the fans into reverse and use them to hold onto the ground. And they don’t need an airport – they can land on any flat surface, from fields to desert to ice, even on water.

That makes them a far more versatile vehicle than previous versions, with many more applications. They can land in places where there is no airport, so they could deliver aid or help to provide disaster relief. The military could use them to deliver supplies and equipment. The mining industry is interested, including a helium company based in Tanzania. They could also be used to deliver wind turbines to remote hillsides. If they prove themselves in these sorts of contexts, we may see interest in more general cargo or even passenger transport in future. Some see possibilities for air freighting food straight from farms, and without the carbon cost of air miles.

That brings me onto the main point, that this would be a more sustainable form of aviation. Airships are lighter than air, so they don’t need huge amounts of fuel to get them airborne and only need the engines for propulsion. They use a tenth of the fuel that a helicopter needs, and have a range of 1,600 miles. A 737 carries about the same amount of cargo as Lockheed’s airship, but with three times the fuel use.

These two airships aren’t the only ones in development. There’s also the Aeroscraft, and the Aerocat R40. A company called Voliris is working on an unmanned airship that can deliver containers. Another is making the Dynalifter, which would work in conjunction with smaller drones to deliver packages. There’s something of a wave of R&D around airships at the moment. Perhaps there’s something in it this time. I certainly look forward to seeing the Airlander in flight at some point in the near future.


  1. Seems an excellent idea. I saw the Airlander on TV not long ago. However, a major flaw, it seems to me, is the fact that supplies of helium are limited (and being wasted in filling thousands of toy balloons which then contaminate the countryside and the sea). We don’t have any way to manufacture helium, unfortunately – at least, not until we have nuclear fission in large scale production!

  2. It’s a good point on helium. That has been my hesitation with airships in the past, but it changed recently. As you know, it’s a non-renewable resource and there were fears that a global shortage was imminent. Several years of rising prices stimulated people to look for solutions. One of them is that helium recovery systems were developed for MRI machines and similar technologies, so that the helium can be recycled. Another is that some uses of helium were phased out with alternatives, where nitrogen or argon could do the job. Secondly, more research went into finding new sources of helium, as it has previously been found by accident. That new research led to large new reserves in East Africa in 2016.

    That doesn’t mean we never need to worry about helium again, but it does mean that there isn’t a crisis that could leave us without vital medical equipment. Obviously demand will shoot up if airships become more popular, but it looks like we can cope. It’s quite a good example of the market responding to depletion signals and scientific warnings.

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