Just one short-haul flight a year produces 10% of our individual carbon emissions.1 We could go back to trains for our traveling, which produce about half the CO2 of a plane,2 but you don’t always have the time. What if we could get the speed of air travel with the lower emissions of ground-travel? Enter the airship.

When it comes to our individual carbon footprint, air travel is the emission-spewing Dumbo in the room. Flying less is the most impactful action you can take to bring down your CO2 quota.3 Although aviation currently accounts for only 2% of the global carbon footprint, its impact is taking off pretty fast.4 With the GHG emissions of the hydrocarbons-guzzling aircraft engines expected to increase more than 4 times by 2045, flying could reach 25% of the global carbon budget by 2050.5,6 So, what do we do? A UK company, Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV)7, is launching a short-range airship service that will water down the carbon emissions of flight by 90%.8 By 2025, you may be able to hop onboard their Airlander 10 and get dropped off a couple of hundred miles away. Because of its shape, the Airlander 10 has been nicknamed “the flying buttocks”9 … thankfully the only gas inside this bad boy is helium … but airships could do more than just make us feel less guilty about a return flight on the weekend. One big benefit is that airships don’t require special infrastructure since flying boats don’t need a runaway for taking off and landing. This could translate into smaller sites located closer to cities, saving people from long commutes to airports, but the airship flexibility would be extremely beneficial for delivering food and humanitarian aid to isolated areas. Sounds uplifting … but before delving into the tech feasibility, let’s jump onboard our DeLorean balloon to fly back in time to where airships came from.

The airships’ turbulent history

Lighter-than-air (LTA)10 vehicles fly through the sky like hot-air balloons, using LTA gases such as helium or hydrogen. While something like a hot-air balloon goes with the wind, airships have engines to ensure maneuverability. These vehicles can be rigid, semi-rigid or non-rigid. The last category, which includes blimps, rely on the pressure of the gas filling the balloon to keep their shape, while the other two types of machines are supported by an internal framework. But when did airships take off? Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin was the pioneer who led the way to rigid airships as we know it. He designed the first rigid motorized dirigible at the end of the 19th century, giving his name to the ancestor of modern airships.

Zeppelins became very popular for their travel comfort. It was like having a cruise in the sky. Much more relaxing than jolting up and down in a cramped plane. But a storm was brewing on the horizon, like the one Zeppelin LZ 14 flew into in 1913.11 The dirigible lost control and dove into the North Sea before splitting in two, killing 14 people. As bad as that was, airships fate was sealed in 1937, when the Hindenburg went down like a lead balloon. With its 804-foot length, the German zeppelin was the largest dirigible ever constructed at that time. Because of the US export restrictions imposed on the Nazi regime, German designers used hydrogen instead of helium as the filling gas. But given the flammability of hydrogen, that wasn’t the best choice. At the end of one of its transatlantic cruises, the Hindenburg caught fire while landing in New Jersey and killed 36 people.12 But safety wasn’t the only reason why airships floated away as a from of travel. In addition to being in the wrong place at the wrong time on the Hindenburg, you would’ve also spent a fortune on the trip. While it would shave 2 days off your Atlantic crossing, the trip would have cost you 5.5 times more than a third class ticket on an ocean liner. In today’s money, that would translate to around $8,200.13

A Comeback to thrust forward

So, how come airships are rising back into the sky again after that bumpy ride? Some scientists are suggesting hydrogen-filled balloons as a more sustainable alternative for transporting the gas compared to maritime cargo shipping.14 Researchers said the airships would require less energy and time to deliver the fuel than oceangoing cargo ships. How would that be possible? Their idea is to fly in the less turbulent stratosphere and make the most out of the jet stream, which is an air current that circles the globe from west to east reaching up to 140 mph.15

You might be asking yourself the same question I did: isn’t this just going to be history repeating itself? The study considered using unmanned airships, which removes any risk for a human crew. Also, they argued some compelling points on the hydrogen controversy. While helium is safer, it’s more difficult to source and its availability is much more limited than hydrogen. Which makes its price higher.16 Another perk of using hydrogen would be generating power and water through on-board fuel cells. But the fire risk is not the only challenge. At the stratosphere altitudes, the air pressure is lower. This means ultra-flexible materials need to be used for designing the airship gasbag. The trouble is these materials are not quite ready yet.17

In the meantime, someone is already working on this setup. The Buoyant Aircraft Systems International (BASI)18 is looking into hydrogen-filled airships to bring produce, construction equipment, and modular housing to the many off-the-grid communities in Canada. Designed to suit the Arctic climate conditions, BASI’s airships will be initially hybrid and then converted to a hydrogen fuel cell-power system.

While using helium rather than hydrogen, Lockheed Martin already offers an airship cargo service.19 Their LMH-1 hybrid model stays aloft using 80% helium buoyancy topped by an aerodynamic lift. By minimizing the use of fossil fuels-driven direct lift, Lockheed Martin hybrid models consume less than 10% of a helicopter’s fuel. Also, their vehicles can be parked on any type of terrain thanks to an air cushion landing system (ACLS). Put simply, the ACLS is a massive inflatable doughnut underneath the blimp that makes airship touchdown a piece of cake. It also doubles as a really great hemorrhoid pillow. After 20 years of development, their versatile hovercrafts are now accomplishing a number of cargo missions. From delivering heavy equipment to hard-to-access areas hemmed in by icy roads in Alaska, to picking up workers and rare earth metals off isolated mines in Quebec20, to serving as a flying clinic for getting aid and tons of supplies into — and injured or refugees out of — accidents and natural disaster locations.

Varialift is working on a different hybrid model, combining solar-powered and conventional engines.21,22 According to the UK company’s CEO, their floating ship would use only 8% of the fuel of a conventional jet over a transatlantic flight between the UK and the US. For the same payload, the firm also claims their machine and operational costs would be up to 90% less than a standard aircraft.

Yet, airships are not just about shipping goods. Since 2001, the German company Zeppelin NT has risen from the Hindenburg ashes.23 Their gondola bags have a semi-rigid design, relying both on helium pressure and on a solid frame to support itself. Carrying up to 12 passengers, gasoline-powered Zeppelin NT airships have been used both for aerial sight-seeing and traveling purposes.

And going back to the eco-friendly Airlander 10 — the ‘flying buttocks’ — that I mentioned earlier, last May, HAV announced a number of routes that will be explored by their green flying machines in 2025. But you might be able to ride on one of HAV’s Airlander 10 even earlier. If you fancy an “experiential journey” to the North Pole, you can book your slot with OceanSky Cruises as soon as 2023.24 But it will cost you a bit of money. Remember the Hindenburg golden ticket? Peanuts in comparison to this. The price tag for a two-person cabin on the Airlander 10 is $79,000.25 As for lower-cost travel, HAV is currently trying to strike a deal with some other airlines. HAV’s CEO said the company aims at covering 47% of regional flights with a distance up to 230 miles. HAV touts the airship market will reach a value of $50bn over the next 20 years. However, by 2026, when they’ll start selling their vehicles, the estimated value might be only around $165 million.26

With a capacity of 100 passengers, the company claims their hybrid-electric dirigibles will take as long as conventional flights yet have a tenth of their carbon footprint.27 That applies whether traveling from Liverpool to Belfast or from Seattle to Vancouver. At least, based on company calculations. Although flying at a top speed of only 130 mph, the airship doesn’t need a runway and could take off from and land in pretty much any flat open area, including water. This city center-to-city center traveling mode makes these vehicles flexible and independent from airports…or ports… if you like? That means you’d save time on commuting. But how safe are HAV’s airships? Fire risk is extinguished by filling the balloon with helium. Yet, one of their prototype tests crashed while landing in 2016.28 However, HAV machines will be certified by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which means it will have to conform to the same safety standards as other aircraft.

So, how green is the Airlander 10 technology? Combining the helium buoyant effect, an aerodynamic lift and a helicopter-like thrust, HAV’s hybrid design is more efficient than comparable aircrafts. Leveraging the helium lift, the vehicle reduces the consumption of the fossil fuel-burning engine and could carry a higher payload. Also, the UK Aerospace Research and Technology Programme awarded the company with a £1M grant to develop a prototype fully powered by a 500 kW electric motor. And they aren’t stopping there because the Airlander 10 could feature battery and solar cell technology.29

What’s puncturing the airship’s balloon?

More cargo, less carbon emissions, no infrastructure required. Sounds like airships are on the rise, right? But is there anything that could hold them down? or on the water? Cost might be one thing. One factor that could inflate the airships operational cost is the gasbag filling. And I’m not talking about myself. Helium is a non-renewable source and we may experience a shortage in the future.30 While hydrogen could work as an alternative for unmanned cargo missions, it would probably be too risky to use with passengers on board. According to Julian Hunt, a researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), using a cargo airship would currently cost up to 50 times more than standard ships. He also said we should invest up to $100 billion over the next 20 years in technological improvements to make airshipping compete with conventional shipping.31 Sir David King, the former UK Chief scientist and climate change specialist is more optimistic than Hunt, saying that the cost of a Varialift airship would be comparable to a jumbo jet.32 Also, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), airships would be more cost-effective than jetliners for freight transport.33 That’s because of the lower fuel consumed during take off and landing as well as the higher payload carried by the flying boats.34 The UK Advanced Technologies Group Ltd. (ATG) estimated the freight cost per ton kilometer for three hybrid cargo airships of different capacity. At the lowest payload, the airship would cost slightly more than a standard aircraft. However, for the medium and top capacities, ATG model simulations predicted airships to compete with trucking and maritime shipping respectively.35 But airships may not be only competitive for cargo deliveries. A 1980 study suggested that a 420-ton airship would be a cost-effective way of ferrying both passengers and their cars from the U.S. mainland to Hawaii. A more recent and comprehensive study compared the economic feasibility of airships to that of airplanes and helicopters.36 Researchers found airships to be the most profitable transport solution when considering long distances (up to 5,000 km) and a high carrying capacity.

The flight path to sustainable aviation

Hybrid and fully electric airships may be a greener alternative for fast travel over short distances. Plus, their greater flexibility can play a key role for delivering cargo to hard-to-reach regions and for performing rescue operations. Data on cost effectiveness seems to be lacking and controversial. Also, airships’ technology may need further investments to catch up with competitors. But eco-friendly flying boats could be a key part of a zero-carbon aviation strategy along with electrical aircrafts and more sustainable fuels. It’s also got the cool steampunk, retro-futurist vibe to it.

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