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Using a Lighter Than Air (LTA) Hybrid Airship to efficiently transport cargo to remote areas seems like an idea that should flourish. It allows access to remote places in the world that have no airports, harbors, or roads leading to them by providing a point-to-point delivery system with vertical take-off and landing, all while providing a greener solution. I see at least three players all trying to enter this market which seems perpetually stuck as coming about in the next 4-5 years and all seem to have benefited from the U.S. Army's Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) project that was canceled in January 2013.

  • Hybrid Air Vehicles in the U.K. has partnered with Northrop Grumman owns a prototype that came out of the LEMV project and plans to build a 50-ton capacity airship in about five years.
  • Aeroscraft in the U.S. has a prototype and plans to build an airship that carries a 66-ton load as shown on the History channel.
  • Lockheed Martin has a P-791 / SkyTug prototype derived from the LEMV program and hopes to build a SkyFreighter to lift a 70-ton cargo.

It appears none of these companies has any current orders and are all looking for funding to build their proposed cargo airships. Apparently an investment of on the order of 50 to 250 million USD would allow one of these to be built for commercial use. While this is a lot of money, it is small compared to other aviation investments. For example, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner required 32 billion USD as of 2011.

Today, all such airships use noble gas helium instead of the very flammable hydrogen used in the Hindenburg accident, so the historical fear of using such ships should not apply to the new technologies. These proposed ships are planned to travel at between 70 and 115 MPH, so while not as fast as airplanes, they do compete with trucking and shipping speeds.

So the question is, given the relatively small cost to develop one of these cargo lift systems, why hasn't a company like Boeing with deep pockets wanted to invest in such systems and these companies continue to search for funding? Is there some kind of flaw in the proposal that such a new cargo shipping approach would save money? Is it that the market is too small to interest big companies? The hangar space required to store and maintain these ships is huge and little such infrastructure currently exists, perhaps that is their downfall? Alternatively, maybe their maintenance requirements are their Achilles heel?

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    $\begingroup$ lighter than air ships are slow and plagued by the hindenburg disaster $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak May 10 '14 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ @ratchetfreak I edited the question to add their use of helium and projected travel speeds. $\endgroup$ – WilliamKF May 10 '14 at 15:05
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    $\begingroup$ How much demand is there really for cargo transport to areas without harbors, airports, or roads? Obviously we have very limited ability to supply cargo to such areas right now, which effectively limits our development in such areas, keeping the demand relatively low. While availability of an inexpensive way of delivering to such areas could spur development and thus demand that is only speculative future demand, which does little to spur initial sales. I suspect that combined with limited airship infrastructure may be the bulk of the answer. $\endgroup$ – Kevin Cathcart May 10 '14 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ With todays technology, hydrogen is an option for cargo - just use drone technology to pilot it. You will lose the occasional airship, but that is just business in the end. $\endgroup$ – MSalters May 13 '14 at 22:46
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    $\begingroup$ @KevinCathcart I can envision some market for offshore and mining/oilfields in remote regions, maybe disaster relief, but the market is probably too small to make initial development economically feasible (and of course in disaster relief, you're pretty much reliant on government funding from donor countries, and they're more likely to push existing resources into the very occasional use, even if less than optimal for the purpose). $\endgroup$ – jwenting May 14 '14 at 10:38
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First of all, there is the question of demand. There aren't enough cases where a very heavy load needs to be moved to a remote location by air. There are probably even fewer where there are funds to actually pay for this option. The An-225 is currently the largest aircraft in operation, and it was only constructed under special circumstances. Although has certainly found use, they still haven't even found the funds to finish a second one which is partially built.

When this option is needed today, helicopters are deployed on cargo aircraft to the area. The helicopters may have to make multiple trips but can do the job. So the subset of cases is even smaller; where heavy cargo needs to be delivered to a remote area and also cannot be split into shipments that helicopters can handle. Deploying a large airship in this manner is also much harder. Either the airship would have to fly itself there, which could take a long time, or it would have to be reduced to a transportable size.

The airship would also need to be protected from the weather somehow. This could require either a very large (and expensive) hangar. Without a hangar, the airship must be tethered, and restraining such a large surface area in the wind would be difficult.

Wind would also affect operation of the airship. Helicopters are of course limited by weather conditions, but wind would have a much greater effect on a large and slow airship.

If the airship could be fairly easily collapsible, it would solve the issues of storage and transportation. However, this is not a simple problem to solve. This would require a large development budget. If you are comparing this to the cost of the 787 development, where are you going to find buyers for 1000 of these airships in order to break even and make them affordable?

The issue is that there needs to be a market for this kind of transportation, which currently competes at least partially with existing helicopters. Why invest in a new type of vehicle when the current option works fine for most cases?

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Helium is not without its own issues. While it isn't a fire hazard it is a limited resource. Let Popular Mechanics tell you about supply issues for helium. So any large scale industrial use of helium could drive up the price of the gas.

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  • $\begingroup$ Isn't it fairly expensive already? $\endgroup$ – user7241 Nov 30 '17 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ Not prohibitively for a small number of airships. But any large scale use would make it even more expensive. $\endgroup$ – BSteinhurst Dec 1 '17 at 0:40
  • $\begingroup$ There's this guy in Germany who already directed the Cargolifter company that went bankrupt. He's currently dreaming of hydrogen-filled airships. He had some scientific backup saying the risk can be controlled, and seriously doubts that the Hindenburg suffered a hydrogen explosion. I think he was blaming the paint of the thing. $\endgroup$ – user7241 Dec 6 '17 at 2:06
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    $\begingroup$ scientificamerican.com/article/… $\endgroup$ – Jason May 29 '18 at 15:21
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There are two primary difficulties with lighter-than-air cargo craft that none of the named companies address; and which give pause to companies such as Boeing.

First: the continued dependence upon very large hangars; both for construction of large airships, and for their protection and maintenance. Any viable cargo fleet would comprise a fair number of craft, and an added investment into numerous huge buildings. This is an obvious "no win" situation.

Second: Virtually all airships continue to use flexible, lightweight fabrics or laminated materials for their hulls. In order for the envelopes to be gastight, weatherproof, resistant to degradation in ultraviolet light, and still have the tensile strength needed, it becomes too expensive to create large fleets of airships. Indeed, the materials used for modern airships are similar to those used for space suits; and there is an extremely limited number of suppliers or sources for these types of exotic and high tech materials.

Happily, there is a solution! First, design airships that no longer need hangars. Not for construction, and not for storage or protection. Second, use commonly available materials such as aluminum and carbon fiber to build airship hulls.

who is doing this?

Me.

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Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe some links to your work and research would be a little better than just a self plug? Just to fit in with the flavor of the site a bit better. Plus, a couple links to back up an answer are always welcome :). $\endgroup$ – Jay Carr May 11 '14 at 3:20
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    $\begingroup$ I'm a bit concerned that turtleairships.com says "Database Error" - plus this skeptical report and 2007 reports of a planned 2009 round the world flight that I guess didn't happen. $\endgroup$ – RedGrittyBrick May 11 '14 at 9:02
  • $\begingroup$ Raw material and suppliers are too expensive and too few for large scale production... Until we ramp up to large scale production. $\endgroup$ – Antzi Jul 12 '16 at 5:05
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Large airships are vulnerable to bad weather, specifically thunderstorms. Their very high surface area means a thunderstorm can easily subject them to loads in excess of their design capacity, while their relatively slow speed makes avoiding storms difficult.

The US Navy operated two large airships in the 1930's, the Akron and Macon, complete with fighter aircraft onboard. Both were lost to storms, as was the British R101 (although design deficiencies were a major contribution to that crash).

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An airship can be used for multiple purposes:

  1. As a cargo airship. I had put up a proposal to Government of India for transporting goods within country using Hybrid Airship.

    • Can transport goods in remote location where it is difficult and expansive to build airport but cost of building maintenance in nearest major city will is not an issue.
    • Currently, there is huge pressure to save environment, and India has pledge to reduce gases at recent summit.
    • Cost of transport will be quicker than by road.
  2. Since Hybrid Airship can remain for couple of days. Can use to fit military hardware for early warning system. Need to monitor border areas especially in north west and north east.

  3. can be also used for tourism department.

  4. Aerial survey during floods. Every year there are floods in northern part of India. It can monitor and take necessary action.

Airship is multi-purpose vehicle, even though its speed is less compared to other mode. It was used to build dome in UK by delivering huge steel panels for building dome.

As regards to the cost, it can mooted out to reach break-even point. For developing Government and Private partnership along with other players (more number of players, lesser the burden) in such projects can help to initiate commercial use of airship.

Reasons are: (i) It is not feasible cost, which is very high; (ii) fear of accident. There was fatal accident when Boeing 747 was carrying lithium batteries from Dubai, UAE airport. Yet to get confidence to operate; (iii) Unlike other commercial aircraft, frequency is not available to use. Market still needs confidence to use, except few instances of use by tourism sector. Government takes initiative, it might help to develop market.

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    $\begingroup$ This is definitely relevant, but you haven't answered the original question of why such airships haven't succeeded in the market so far. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Nov 27 '17 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ Reasons are: (i) It is not feasible cost, which is very high; (ii) fear of accident. There was fatal accident when Boeing 747 was carrying lithium batteries from Dubai, UAE airport. Yet to get confidence to operate; (iii) Unlike other commercial aircraft, frequency is not available to use. Market still needs confidence to use, except few instances of use by tourism sector. Government takes initiative, it might help to develop market. $\endgroup$ – Jay Mehta Nov 27 '17 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ I suggest you add those comments to your answer, it would help to make it more complete and directly answer the question. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Nov 27 '17 at 19:01
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Most likely, the reason is speed and payload capacity. Blimps and airships are really slow - around 40-50 knots which doesn’t make them competitive with large freight aircraft capable of approx 500 knots. They are also quite large and not really compatible with existing Aviation infrastructure like hangars, etc. given that, I’m not surprised they haven’t generated a whole lot of buyers.

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  • $\begingroup$ They don't have to compete on speed if the price is right. $\endgroup$ – fooot Dec 3 '17 at 4:13
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Well actually hybrid airships kind of defeat the main advantage of airships (Does not require fuel to have lift) While using surface area for lift occasionally isn't a bad idea, when 40 percent of the lift is in surface area and 60 percent is the helium it makes it slow and inefficient and it still requires a runway. Lockheed's largest airship has a top speed of 60, while the Hindenburg, which was created using 90 year old technology, had a top speed of 80. but it is actually be more cost effective to send 8 airships across the pacific multiple times carrying cargo than it would be to send a single enormous, slow innefficient cargo ship across the Atlantic. I did the math a while ago so I do t remember the numbers, but it could be something like 2.3 million dollars more cost effective and take about one month less time to transfer the same amount of cargo a regular sized cargo ship against 8 cargo airships with 200 tons carrying capacity flying at 150 mph. This isn't taking airship manufacturing Vs. cargo ship manufacturing into account, this is simply fuel based. This doesn't count personell either. If I were to take manufacturing into account, It would be even more in favor of the airships because it is quicker to produce a hydrogen fueled airship and costs a WHOOOOOOLE lot less.

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    $\begingroup$ It's not totally clear whether you are saying airships or cargo ships is cheaper. Also, it would help to provide some more information about where your numbers came from. $\endgroup$ – fooot Jul 11 '16 at 18:08

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