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Transportation Toys Technology

The Age of the Airship Returns? 315

Posted by Zonk
from the let's-head-to-bespoke-and-compile-runcible dept.
Popular in Victorian and Steampunk fantasies, airships and zeppelins evoke a certain elegance that most modern travelers don't associate with the airplane. Some companies are capitalizing on that idea, and a need to move cargo by air in an era of ever-increasing fuel costs, to re-re-introduce commercial zeppelins. Popular Mechanics notes four notable airship designs, all with specific design purposes. One craft in particular, the Aeroscraft ML866, is being funded by the US government's DARPA group. It looks to combine the best elements of the helicopter and the zeppelin. "The Aeroscraft ML866's potentially revolutionary Control of Static Heaviness system compresses and decompresses helium in the 210-ft.-long envelope, changing this proposed sky yacht's buoyancy during takeoff and landings, Aeros says. It hopes to end the program with a test flight demonstrating the system. "
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The Age of the Airship Returns?

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 06, 2008 @02:37AM (#21930246)
    • by SerpentMage (13390) <ChristianHGross AT yahoo DOT ca> on Sunday January 06, 2008 @04:05AM (#21930596)
      Funny I was thinking the same thing. Cargo zeppelins was actually a very promising area. My brother's company that makes custom machinery wanted to use Cargo zeppelins to move their heavy machinery. Right now their machines are assembled, taken apart, and then driven piece by piece via road. The zeppelins were supposed to make this moot by being able to ship the entire machine.

      From the article it looks like they want to use those machines to survey... Hmmm... Big brother?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by hughk (248126)
      Not as simple. There were two companies, Cargolifter AG and a separate company used for raising finance and running the treasury, something like Cargolifter Finanz or something. The original concept was a good one and they had a lot of interest from oil companies and relief agencies amongst others. For whatever reason, Cargolifter sat clear of the markets with high-transparency requirements in Frankfurt and stuck to the 'official' unregulated market. They collected a lot of money both as startup aid from th
  • by Travoltus (110240) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @02:38AM (#21930250) Journal
    he wants his world of tomorrow back.
  • by Tablizer (95088) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @02:41AM (#21930258) Journal
    (sorry, had to be said)
  • We are now falling int love with airships, and our cheap helium is about to end?????
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by wizardforce (1005805)
      helium is mainly obtained from natural gas fields [heloium apparently collects in these deposits] which means helium will probably be reasonably accessible for a while. now assuming we did run out of cheap Helium, we should be able to build airships that *ahem* use hydrogen or another light gas to replace Helium. the big limitation of course is the danger of fire although a series of gas bags situated toward the outside filled with Nitrogen or some other reasonably obtainable relatively inert gas should g
      • Ahhh.... Welll.... If we run out helium we are actually kind of buggered. Look at the periodic table.

        http://www.corrosionsource.com/handbook/periodic/ [corrosionsource.com]

        The reason why we use Hydrogen, or Helium is because they are light and actually make it worthwhile to float. Hydrogen is the lightest because it has a weight of 1. Below that is Li which is slightly heavier than H, but just as unstable as H. Though if you look at the noble gasses below Helium is Neon, which has a weight of 10. In other words 5 times heavier.
        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Hognoxious (631665)

          Below that is Li which is slightly heavier than H
          And happens to not be a gas in the first place. One other thing - the periodic table you linked to shows atomic numbers - those aren't the same as relative densities (and neither are atomic weights, for that matter).
        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Hal_Porter (817932)
          Talk to an engineer rather than a chemist!

          What about a vacuum in a cleverly engineered light weight container? Or hot air? Buckminster Fuller had an idea of mile diameter geodesic domes that would levitate from waste heat. They only need to be 1 degree hotter than their environment -

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_nine_(Tensegrity_sphere) [wikipedia.org]
  • I've heard arguments that the Hindenburg blew up because of the paint and not the hydrogen, so maybe we should re-evaluate whether or not hydrogen is actually safe for this application? On Earth, it's certainly much easier to get hydrogen than helium.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by graft (556969)
      The paint theory is not credible. Anyway, it's definitely true that a big bag of unpressurized hydrogen in a thin skin is a dangerous quantity. The Hindenburg was an inevitable tragedy. Hydrogen is a bad idea in a dirigible.
      • Re:Hydrogen (Score:5, Insightful)

        by delt0r (999393) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @03:57AM (#21930572)
        And you saying its not credible makes it un-credible because you are credible? Please back up your claim.

        Over half of the people survived the crash. How many survive 747 crashes? Perhaps the 100+ tons of JET fuel in the wings and under the floor is not safer than hydrogen after all?
    • by Nom du Keyboard (633989) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @03:18AM (#21930434)

      it's certainly much easier to get hydrogen than helium.

      And it lifts better too!

      Of course vacuum would provide the best lift of all in the atmosphere. So why is it that my beautiful 21" crt monitor, which is little more than a big cube of vacuum, is so damn heavy?

    • Re:Hydrogen (Score:5, Informative)

      by wizardforce (1005805) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @03:30AM (#21930490) Journal
      If I remember correctly, they used aluminized layers alternating with iron oxide layers. aluminum can react with iron oxide in a thermite reaction. Iron oxide is the oxidizer and aluminum is the reducing agent, because of the violence of the reaction it is used in some cases to dispose of computer hardware to reduce/eliminate the risk of data recovery by unintended parties. That being true, it is certainly possible that the paint increased the risk of fire but the fact that the gas inside the balloon was very flammable didn't help anything. would the ship have caught fire if the outer coating wasn't flammable? probably eventually, all it takes is a tear in the skin of that ship to expose hydrogen to air and really at that point, it is only a matter of time before something causes ignition of the gas. OTOH, had the gas been helium, the only fire hazard would be the paint which if comprimised would be bad but likely a lot better than the whole ship catching fire.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by vidarh (309115)
        If the skin burns, the ship goes down whether or not the gas inside is flammable, as the gas quickly escapes. I very much doubt whether the gas inside burns would make much difference. Especially as a lot of the fatalities with Hindenburg were people getting hit by falling debris (burning hydrogen would be escaping upwards - what they were hit with were either the skin or from the gondola) or jumping in desperation to avoid the fire.
    • by dunezone (899268)
      According to Mythbusters(and I know their not perfect all the time) the paint aided in the problem but the hydrogen was what caused the blimp to go up so fast.

      The question with hydrogen is, "Has technology advanced since then to safely use it", I don't know anything about airships but I will assume that if we can go into space and back safely we can build an airship that can safely use hydrogen.
      • The answer is no...

        Can we safely transport Hydrogen. Yes... Can we safely transport Hydrogen and float? Answer is no...

        Using Hydrogen means we need to weigh how much safety to reasonable expect. Unless of course we happen to develop some super tensile spider web type technology that can be used to safely contain hydrogen. Though I would not trust that technology worth a darn. From the periodic table Hydrogen is just too darn unstable... Look at the periodic table and see what it neighbors are...

        http://www.c [corrosionsource.com]
      • Re:Hydrogen (Score:5, Insightful)

        by NNKK (218503) <nknight@runawaynet.com> on Sunday January 06, 2008 @04:37AM (#21930718) Homepage
        There are around 43,000 traffic fatalities per year in the US. If we posit that a mere 60,000,000 people (only 1/5th of the US population) get in a car or cross the street on foot every year, that's a total death rate of about 0.00072%.

        There have been 439 astronauts. 19 of them have died in flight. That's 4.5%, meaning you are, given the above incredibly pessimistic estimate, more than 6000 times as likely to die in a spaceship than in the rolling deathtrap called a car. And by the way, 14 of those 19 deaths have happened in the Space Shuttle, the most advanced manned spacecraft to currently fly on a regular basis.

        You'll therefore excuse me if I find your risk assessment lacking.
        • by bhima (46039)
          I wonder if the assessment would get better or worse if you factored in miles traveled.

          Or hours in transit.
        • by dunezone (899268)
          I was using the space example not as means of safety but as means of trying to explain that alot of time has passed and technology has advanced alot since the Hindenburg. The other individual explained that it better though, we have great technology in transporting hydrogen, but we lack the technology to safely use it as a replacement of helium(or other gases) since its highly unstable.
    • by Doppler00 (534739)
      I think hydrogen would be great for airships used for cargo transport or unmanned operations. It should really come down to economics and insurance considerations. If you're launching an unmanned surveillance airship, who's really going to be at risk if it burns up (it wouldn't explode). I think the "safety" of a lot of technologies (nuclear, etc.) will definitely be re-evaluated once energy prices get ridiculously expensive.

      Heck, why can't they even use a non-flammable helium/hydrogen mixture? The cost of
    • Re:Hydrogen (Score:5, Insightful)

      by MaineCoon (12585) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @04:31AM (#21930694) Homepage
      People also seem to forget that 2/3s of the passengers of the Hindenburg survived, and it was the only notable airship disaster, whereas most airplane crashes that involve fatalities seem to kill a good majority (if not all) of the passengers, and seem to happen at least once or twice a year lately.
      • Brilliant comment, I'd mod you up if I had points.

        But not only that, but the Hindenburg had a NAME... it was "unique" as was the Titanic (how many steam ships sank, how many ships sink today, compared to how many planes wreck?).

        It wasn't the fact that they were rarities, and there were plenty of survivors. It was that they had names and were memorable, movies were made, books were written.

        They were patronized by a variety of big names of their age. Some, (like Astor and some of his high class acquaintance
      • People also seem to forget that 2/3s of the passengers of the Hindenburg survived, and it was the only notable airship disaster, whereas most airplane crashes that involve fatalities seem to kill a good majority (if not all) of the passengers, and seem to happen at least once or twice a year lately.

        While you've got a point, I just wanted to point out that there are a LOT of flights that go on every single day of the year. Statistically speaking, yes, news-worthy crashes are going to happen once or twice a year.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by ddrichardson (869910)

      There is a Mythbusters episode that investigates this. They called it a bust. The paint did burn readily but it was nothing compared to tthe hydrogen exploding.

      Article [nytimes.com], episode itself [spikedhumor.com].

  • by charlesbakerharris (623282) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @02:49AM (#21930286)
    So, whirling rotary blades combined with When The Levee Breaks?

    Cool.

  • by mlts (1038732) * on Sunday January 06, 2008 @02:54AM (#21930304)
    Airships have their issues, but I recall reading somewhere that a blimp large enough to carry massive amounts of cargo can do so for the fraction of the fuel spent on ship-based transportation. Ships have to keep expending energy to push through water, but an airship needs far less power to keep a course through the air.

    I see a couple hurdles though.

    The first is designable around -- damage to the hot air or helium part due to lightning, or tears due to other factors. Having multiple "balloons" might help this situation, so if one is ruptured, the airship still can stay up, or descend in a fairly graceful fashion.

    The second is a bit harder, but sort of related to #1. There are people out there (in most areas of the globe) who wouldn't mind taking potshots at an airship. It could be a drunk hillbilly who is playing with his new 30/06, or someone who has a RPG and is hoping to knock the thing out of the air completely. Oddly enough (and I have little or no aerospace expertise), I wonder if, even with major damage from a missile hit, a well engineered airship still can land gracefully (assuming the gondola isn't what is damaged.) Could an airship fly high enough so the chance of getting hit by ground fire be minimized?

    Lastly there is a third problem. There is a ton of air traffic already. I wonder how hard it would be to factor in large, slow vehicles into the aviation corridors without impacting takeoffs and landings of jets and prop based traffic.
    • by drsquare (530038)
      I would have thought that slow moving blimps would be much easier to navigate around than fast-moving planes.
      • by ratbag (65209)
        Put a 10mph car on a 70mph motorway (freeway, autobahn etc) and watch the fun...
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by squiggleslash (241428)

          I think both analogies are wrong. Think of it this way: What's the difference between an airship traveling away from you and a 747 traveling towards you? In "Oh fuck, if we don't change direction we're toast" terms, nothing whatsoever.

          Realistically, this will be dealt with by the usual ATC mechanisms, I can't see airships being any kind of major hazard, especially if, as seems likely, regular HTA aircraft will typically be flying at 30,000 feet, well above most airships.

    • It could be a drunk hillbilly who is playing with his new 30/06

      Interesting that your drunk hillbilly would select a cartridge that's now 102 years old in design. I'm sure there's a lesson in there somewhere.

      • by mysticgoat (582871) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @02:39PM (#21934328) Homepage Journal

        The 30-06 is still one of the best general purpose rifles around. In hunting, it easily handles powder and bullet combinations from a 150 grain deer round to a 220 grain round suitable for moose and large bears. There are now sabot bullets in the 95 grain region that make the 30-06 a good varmint rifle. It is a favored hunting rifle for reloaders because the cartridges can be fire-formed to custom fit the rifle's chamber, the brass is thick enough that they can be re-used multiple times, and the wide selection of powders and bullets allows custom tailoring of rounds.

        In my experience, rural rednecks who know enough to acquire a 30-06 rifle are very unlikely to have it in hand when they are drinking. The redneck rule in southern Oregon is: no beer or other alcohol until the day's hunting is over; no handling of any of the guns after the drinking has begun. Break the rule and you find that none of the good old boys will hunt with you any more. My impression is that this is universal throughout rural USA and Canada, and probably world-wide. There would be fewer rednecks around if it wasn't for centuries-old customs like this one.

        City-bred rednecks are another story: they do drink and shoot simultaneously. But they generally aren't savvy enough to buy a 30-06. They want something more macho like a .300 magnum to go with their huge fourwheeler that they don't know how to drive.

    • by brinebold (1209806) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @04:26AM (#21930684)

      The second is a bit harder, but sort of related to #1. There are people out there (in most areas of the globe) who wouldn't mind taking potshots at an airship. It could be a drunk hillbilly who is playing with his new 30/06, or someone who has a RPG and is hoping to knock the thing out of the air completely. Oddly enough (and I have little or no aerospace expertise), I wonder if, even with major damage from a missile hit, a well engineered airship still can land gracefully (assuming the gondola isn't what is damaged.) Could an airship fly high enough so the chance of getting hit by ground fire be minimized?

      For the .30/06 its like shooting a parachute with a pistol. Enough holes would be dangerous but the helium bags aren't under enough pressure to pop like a balloon and a hole roughly 1/3 in. in diameter isn't going to be enough to bring it down before a patch can be made. Also, with the exception of some serious firepower like the .50 and .75 caliber rifles, bullets don't actually travel too far before dropping. Your chances of hitting a blimp with a hunting rifle or an AK when its in the air are practically nonexistent outside of takeoff or landing. The maximum effective range of an AK-47 (the area at which you could expect to hit a large target firing horizontally, though I think a blimp is a bit above the large target in this standard) is generally estimated around 250m. add the distance you are away from it and account for the upward angle you're firing at and I believe it'd be quite impressive to to hit a blimp with small-arms fire.

      As far as the RPG goes, I'm not sure what we could hope for there... military aircraft don't stand up so well to direct RPG hits. Commercial aircraft simply can't be designed for that particular level of abuse.

    • Lastly there is a third problem. There is a ton of air traffic already. I wonder how hard it would be to factor in large, slow vehicles into the aviation corridors without impacting takeoffs and landings of jets and prop based traffic.

      I was about to post a similar comment, but you beat me to the punch!

      In the age of the airship, there were far less air traffic, so coordinating between different types of air vehicles wasn't that difficult. Now with tens of thousands of aircraft in the air over the continenta
  • This again? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Brett Buck (811747) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @03:04AM (#21930358)
    About every 10 years or so, someone proclaims the return of the airship. The problems with airships are the same they have always been - high susceptibility to winds and difficult ground handling. Those problems are essentially insoluble - it's *lighter than air*. The combination helicopter/blimp had been tried at least half a dozen times, all unsuccessfully.

          The hydrogen/helium thing not an issue. It's not going to use hydrogen. Whether that's what got the Hindenberg, or not, flying around with tens of thousands of cubic feet of exceptionally flammable gas, with a HUGE range of fuel/air ratios at which it can sustain ignition, isn't going to happen. It's a *bad idea* and wouldn't pass the laugh test for FAA certification.

                Brett
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Khyber (864651)
      Umm, once you compress helium, like mentioned, it becomes a LIQUID. Show one one liquid on this planet that is lighter than air - oops, that's not exactly possible, is it? release the compressed helium = inflated dirgible and floating. Compress the helium = it turns into a liquid and is essentially a deadweight.

      Control might be an issue, but that's where DARPA's helicopter-hybrid design comes into play.

      The problems are starting to get solutions. Don't knock it until you've personally tried it and seen it fa
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by delt0r (999393)
        Um, Helium does not become a liquid until it gets down to 4K (-269C). It never becomes a liquid in the suggested design.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by WalksOnDirt (704461)
          It's 4.22 K at one atmosphere. At higher pressure it stays liquid at higher temperatures. At the easily achieved critical pressure of 2.24 atm, helium will stay liquid all the way up to 5.19 K, but that's as good as it gets.

          (I was looking up the values to reply to the GP, but you beat me to it)
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by njh (24312)
          Compressing He (4) to 8 atm makes it more dense than air (29). That is trivial (800kPa). Helium gas tanks, for comparison, operate at 1000atm (100MPa). A more interesting question is how much energy such compression and decompression would take.

          If you are lifting 1e6 g of stuff using helium, you need at least 1e6 / (29-4) mol of helium, compressing that by a factor of factor of 8 requires -nRTlog(V1/V2) work, which is 90MJ per tonne. In practice you would need considerably less compression than that bec
    • by _Quinn (44979)
      At least one of the new designs doesn't get 100% lift from its bag, and requires the airship to be moving to stay aloft. This eliminates most of the ground-handling problems: as long as the cargo weighs less than the missing lift, you can just turn the engines off and load and unload it as you would a plane or truck. Heck, it's a blimp, they have lots of space: go ahead and containerize the whole thing.
    • by dasunt (249686)

      The hydrogen/helium thing not an issue. It's not going to use hydrogen. Whether that's what got the Hindenberg, or not, flying around with tens of thousands of cubic feet of exceptionally flammable gas, with a HUGE range of fuel/air ratios at which it can sustain ignition, isn't going to happen. It's a *bad idea* and wouldn't pass the laugh test for FAA certification.

      Would hydrogen still be a Bad Idea if airships were fully automatic/remote controlled and only used for cargo?

      A GPS system could be u

  • Not an airship.... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Warbothong (905464) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @03:06AM (#21930372) Homepage
    That's [popularmechanics.com] no airship, it's Thunderbird 2 [bbc.co.uk]!
  • Oh, the humanity!
  • by flyingfsck (986395) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @03:12AM (#21930410)
    The trouble with blimps is that they don't compete with aircraft, since they are too slow. They compete with trains and trucks, but don't have the carrying capacity to do that, while they do have the maintenance cost of aircraft. So altogether they don't make economic sense and they likely never will.
    • I'd have thought they'd mostly be competing with long-distance shipping, where speed of delivery isn't necessarily critical. If the developed world is going to try and cut down on carbon emissions and pollutants (which ships are great at even though it's largely ignored), or at least try to make it look as such and start taxing the use of cargo ships much more highly, massive heavy-lift airships might become more cost effective if a few problems are figured out.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by brinebold (1209806)

      They may be able to squeak out some profit carrying cargo internationally, where their competition isn't trains (for large amounts of cargo long distances) and trucks (smaller amounts and shorter distances), but instead ships (large amounts of cargo slowly) and planes (small amounts of cargo quickly and expensively).

      If you'd bother to check, then you'd realize that winds are quite reliable along the ocean and tend to form very predictable patterns that at the higher altitudes would likely push a dirigible

    • by morethanapapercert (749527) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @04:19AM (#21930664)
      The Skycat 220 is supposed to have a payload capacity of 220 tons. (No, I dunno if those are metric, long or short tons) That handily beats any on-the-road wheeled vehicle I know of. They can go to remote places where roads and rails don't run. Thus beating the trains. They can carry more weight and go further than a helocopter for less money. They are also much quieter and cheaper to operate than a jumbo jet. And unlike those trucks and trains, LTACs are pretty good at crossing oceans. These things aren't intended to compete with trucks and trains, not directly in thier narrow fields anyway. They compete with trains on flexibility of destination, with trucks and helocopters on total payload, with conventional aircraft on cost and with ships on speed.
      I agree with your basic point that a blimp is not nearly as good at other transport systems are best at, but for some particular uses it still has some advantages. Here are some cases where I can see a major economic advantage to using some sort of LTAC over more conventional transportation:
      1) carrying heavy gear to remote locations. (Mining, military, telecom etc)
      2) anything that involves hanging around in the sky for long hours. (police patrol, weather research, space launch monitoring, customs patrol.)
      3) many things that involve getting a better view than you can get down here. (air traffic control, high altitude research, some types of cosmic ray research, military reconnaissance )
      4) the Skycat in particular, with it's self landing systems, would make a damn fine traveling medical clinic and disaster response vehicle for Canada, Russia, Australia and pretty much most of Africa.
      5) I'm not sure how such a large and light vehicle can handle itself in the turbulence of a forest fire, but if they can be made to handle that environment they'd have a LOT more capacity than any chopper for water or fire retardants and a lot more flexibility in where to refill.
      6)Avalanche control. You could get right up close to a potential avalanche site without making as much noise as a chopper, giving you more flexibility and control in triggering it.
      7)wild life monitoring. you can quietly drift over a herd or flock without disturbing it as much as a helicopter would. (come to think of it, it wouldn't be as vulnerable to bird strike would it?)

      Bottom line, no one, not even the optimistic writer of TFA is claiming that these craft will render trains, trucks, heavier than air aircraft and ships obsolete. We're just in the process of bringing back a very unique tool into our logistics chains.

      P.S. The Skycat company also promotes their design as a possible executive aircraft, something I am dubious on. But imagine what a wonderful RV it would make for the ultra rich! With a payload of 20 tons for even the smallest, you could pack out an entire cabin and camp site, preloaded and provisioned for any remote fishing or hunting spot you can imagine.
    • Blimps don't need to make economic sense because they are fun. Also, if we don't have zeppelins, then how am I supposed to fulfill my dream of throwing somebody off of one and then saying "No ticket"?
  • Only 40 Years Ago... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Nom du Keyboard (633989) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @03:13AM (#21930412)

    "The Aeroscraft ML866's potentially revolutionary Control of Static Heaviness system compresses and decompresses helium in the 210-ft.-long envelope, changing this proposed sky yacht's buoyancy during takeoff and landings,"

    It was only about 40 years or so I read about this system. Of course, this was the Mad Scientists Club in Boy's Life magazine that competed in a balloon race and handled the buoyancy problem in this advanced manner. Maybe some of those Boy Scouts grew up to fly like Eagles and design airships.

    (P.S. I also read Arthur Clarke's original short story Sunjammer in BL, before he had to go and change the title to the far less elegant The Wind From The Sun title, after some other author also used the same original title in another story that same year.)

  • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @03:15AM (#21930424)
    I have been reading about the return of the Zeppelin (mostly for cargo carrying) in the science magazines ever since I was a small child. Popular Science or Popular Mechanics have seemed to have an article on the subject just about every year... for many, many years. So pardon me if I am skeptical! I will pay attention when I actually see a commercial version fly overhead.
  • The golden age of balooning returns!
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Brett Buck (811747)
      That means it's not too long 'till the Golden Age of Colonic Irrigation!

                Brett
  • by UnderCoverPenguin (1001627) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @03:26AM (#21930480)
    I've driven past Moffet Field, in California, which NASA uses part of, and seen several airship hangers. The ships I saw were not advertising or such, but appeared to be actual "workhorse" ships, whether for cargo or research, I don't know, but it seems airships have been around and doing useful work with almost no attention, so it is hardly surprising to me that more uses are being considered.

    A very interesting use is being worked on by a company called JP Aerospace (http://jpaerospace.com/). Their idea is to build an airship-to-orbit system. Not in one go. It would involve transferring from a ground capable airship to an extreme high altitude airship.
  • After reading this and brushing past the initial skeptical views expressed above through historical references (ie: The Hindenburg), I have two questions: 1) Will it run Linux? 2) How expensive will it be to ride in one from location X to location Y? I mean, if it's going at 222kph, and a person is not in a hurry and/or not willing to spend too much money on airplane flights (especially international ones), would it be a cheaper and stable alternative to riding a Boeing or an Airbus? If it isn't, it's goin
  • by EGenius007 (1125395) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @04:19AM (#21930662)
    Shouldn't all comments referring to the Hindenburg be modded "Flaimbait"?
  • by v1 (525388) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @10:23AM (#21932302) Homepage Journal
    I recall reading something about what amounted to a flying aircraft carrier. A zeppeline-like airship that launched biplanes.

    The USS Akron (ZRS-4) based in Lakehurst, NJ and the USS Macon (ZRS-5) based in Sunnyvale, CA were helium filled rigid airships developed by the Goodyear-Zepplin Company (a joint venture of the Zepplin Company of Germany and the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company) for the United States Navy. The airships were designed for coastal patrol and had the ability to carry and launch five small biplanes.

    More info here [pacificaerial.com]
  • by Ancient_Hacker (751168) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @10:42AM (#21932404)
    A few gotchas:
    • Blimps are unlikely to get very high, so they have to fly through the weather, or land and hide in a hangar. So they're no good for any kind of dependable, scheduled service.
    • Even if good weather, blimps have a terrible safety record.
    • 220 tons sounds like a lot of lifting, but it's only two rail cars. It's never going to be economical to replace two super-reliable, all-weather $100K rail cars with a million dollar blimp that can only fly in good weather.
    • Consider how much real-estate it takes to moor just one blimp.
  • Helium Supply (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Johnny Mnemonic (176043) <mdinsmore@gmail.cCURIEom minus physicist> on Sunday January 06, 2008 @11:04AM (#21932586) Homepage Journal
    I recently toured the Naval Air Station Tillamook [nastillamook.org] and learned two surprising things related to this discussion:
    • The US is far and away the largest, if not the only, producer of helium; and
    • we'll probably be out of Helium within 10 years.
    As Helium is used, it must be recovered. If it simply left to evaporate, being lighter than air it will rise to the highest level of our atmosphere and there be stripped of by the solar wind. So once it's gone, it's gone--and there appears to be a finite supply, as we have only been able to extract it from natural gas deposits that have had the further advantage of being proximate to a radiation source.

    There are different estimates [chicagotribune.com] about how much more of it we have, and the Moon is a possible supply. But I sure wouldn't want to attempt to build an airship industry around it. By the time airships became feasible again, we may well be out of Helium by then (or in enough cheap abundance to make it the lift medium infeasible).
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Deadstick (535032)
      The US is far and away the largest, if not the only, producer of helium

      Correct. The way you get helium is: go to Amarillo, Texas and drill a hole.

      Amarillo sits atop a huge deposit of alpha-emitting radioactive ores. An alpha particle is two protons with two neutrons attached, which from another perspective is a helium nucleus. As soon as it finds two electrons it grabs them, and ba-bing, ba-boom, helium atom.

      The consortium that holds the government contract to extract helium has been a major local profi

  • by giminy (94188) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @11:26AM (#21932734) Homepage Journal
    In the 1980s, my dad worked on a project for the Piasecki Aircraft Corporation. It was called the PA-97 Helistat. There are some pictures and info about it on the Piasecki Aircraft website [piasecki.com]. It was designed to lift heavy objects using a derigible and a few helicopters. Unfortunately, the helicopters motor frequency became resonant with the flimsy frame structure and it fell apart, killing one pilot. One thing that has always intrigued me is that the German version of wikipedia has a lot more info about the Helistat than can be found anywhere else: link [wikipedia.org].
  • by r_jensen11 (598210) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @01:58PM (#21933974)
    is that it's getting incredibly expensive as well.
  • Airships! Neato (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jollyreaper (513215) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @05:11PM (#21935608)
    I've always had a soft spot for these things. A few thoughts:

    Classic airships were terribly difficult to operate given the technology of the day. Landings were particularly difficult thanks to the strange concept of the mooring tower. Perhaps classic-era zeppelins could have been safer if they used a winch-down technology similar to helicopters on modern destroyers. In heavy seas, the helicopter cannot land conventionally. A cable is dropped to the deck where it is secured in a winch drum. The chopper pilot applies full throttle as he is slowly winched out of the sky. If the deck rises, he rises, and likewise falls when it falls. This prevents him from getting smacked into splinters by an unpredictable wave. For a zeppelin, a few mooring lines dropped from the air could leave it secured against errant wind gusts while it is winched down. Of course, we now have computer-aired control systems and could use rotating thruster pods like modern ships for three-dimensional maneuvering.

    While hydrogen is probably still our best modern fuel, I'm curious as to what kind of unobtanium would be required to create vacuum airships, ones that don't just use a lighter than air gas but completely evacuated containers to create buoyancy.

    Final thought: I hope they put more thought into this than the Germans who came up with Zeppelin NT [wikipedia.org]. I'm still waiting for Titanic ME.
  • by Daniel Phillips (238627) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @07:28PM (#21936802)
    If the atmosphere would just behave itself and lie there docilely, or at least move all in the same direction at the same time, airships would make sense from an engineering point of view. But since the wind is not this cooperative, it is essential to build an airshipstrong enough to withstand the atmospheric equivalent of a rogue wave, and strength is the enemy of lightness. Size magnifies the effect of shearing forces. Also, travelling through the air faster than a stately drift causes vortexes and standing waves on the surface of the structure, a poorly understood phenomenon that is counteracted in "heavy" aircraft by just making the surfaces strong. Again, strong is the enemy of light. To make matters worse, the vortex patterns are speed dependent. In simple terms, a fast moving airship will tear itself apart. That is why blimps have a top speed of not very much, and rigid airships (the rigid part is about keeping the envelope from collapsing as speed increases) have a top speed of not very much more.

    Maybe one day when fluid dynamics is better understood and strength to weight ratios have improved enough to get the safety margins into the right zone, the age of the airship will truly return. We are nowhere close to either of those at the moment. The concept art shown here for the Aeroscraft in particular is just stupid. Look at the massive concentration of weight right at the stern. There are good reasons why the most successful airship designs place the engines below the craft, in the middle. This contributes to stability and reduces stress on the structure, which otherwise would have to be heavier. Also the lozenge shape may look good on a magazine cover, but it reduces volume of the lifting gas in relation to surface area. Less gas is the same as more weight.

    I have a lot of trouble believing that the designs shown have been subjected to any kind of serious engineering analysis. This is more about convincing gullible people to go take a flyer on a grand venture. See the pretty pictures and send your money here thanks.

    To be sure, Zepellins really are back, at least a small number of them. They fly low and slow over Berlin. The design is very traditional, a stubby cigar shape with a nacelle underheath to which the engines are attached. These aircraft are not really good for much other than the spectacle, which in my opinion justifies the effort but this is a far cry from commercial viability as a mode of transportation.

It's not so hard to lift yourself by your bootstraps once you're off the ground. -- Daniel B. Luten

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