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The Second Age of Airships 363

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the no-smoking-please dept.
The Telegraph has a story about a new generation of airships. It says "It's a new vehicle. It's a hybrid because we're combining helium lift, aerodynamic lift, a hovercraft landing system, and vectored thrust... If you can get beyond the word airship — because that has a lot of history — people think about them differently."
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The Second Age of Airships

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  • Forever. (Score:5, Funny)

    by Pojut (1027544) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @11:15AM (#33150340) Homepage

    I will forever associate the word "airship" with Final Fantasy VI. Damn you, early-mid 1980's birth!

    • by Talderas (1212466)

      It does feel like we're getting closer to the FF6/FF9 style of airship....

      Personally I would prefer a more FF7/FF8 or FF12 style of airship....

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Vorpix (60341)

      why not FFIV? you start the game on the Red Wings as Cecil!

    • I won't ride in an airship that wasn't designed by Cid.

  • Helium (Score:2, Troll)

    by Pete Venkman (1659965)

    Is this really how we should be using the Helium we have left on Earth?

    • Re:Helium (Score:5, Insightful)

      by huckamania (533052) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @11:20AM (#33150406) Journal
      We should save it for heart shaped balloons and making funny voices at parties?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Well, we could always collect helium from tobacco fields -- the radioactive polonium in commonly used tobacco fertilizers is an alpha emitter, and plenty of it accumulated in the soil after decades of use.
    • by tehcyder (746570)

      Is this really how we should be using the Helium we have left on Earth?

      I think I missed the memo explaining how helium was now a scarce resource.

    • Imagine this ... you're in the helium airship and it comes across a micro black hole. Black hole's gravity compresses the helium to the point for fusion...and BAM! thermonuclear explosion!

      Nope! We should ban this right now!!!

  • If you can get beyond the word airship — because that has a lot of history

    Ya, "history", all the bad kind [wikipedia.org]

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by somersault (912633)

      Your sig is very appropriate today!

    • Don't forget the Shenandoah, R38, Roma, Akron and Macon. The Los Angeles was the only rigid US airship that didn't go crashing into the earth or sea and that is only because we the good sense to ground it before it had to chance to take out another crew. I can think of no other mode of transportation with such a failure rate and in the end it has only done Goodyear and Goodrich any good.

      I hate to rain on this guy's parade, it is an awful neat one, but what advantage does it serve? In war it is the definitio

  • Cool!! Airships! Does this mean we all get brass goggles and leather aprons and other Steampunk essentials?

    We need way more retro-future stuff like this! That's freakin' awesome.

    Next, zombies in London. :-P

  • Every science magazine since the 1950s has felt obliged to talk about the "blimp renaissance" once a year, along with a "promising prototype".

    I'm still waiting for the news of a prankster somewhere that flies a large RC blimp with a picture of Osama on it.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Danimoth (852665)

      Sure, but these guys got a $500,000,000 contract from the US government to actually make some of these things.

  • It's going to be a Glorious Ride!

    Or maybe not [buzzfeed.com]

  • He picks a name that abbreviates to HAV. Hmmm Haich - Aiii - Veee... HIV!

    Seriously...

  • D'oh! (Score:3, Funny)

    by Thud457 (234763) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @11:28AM (#33150540) Homepage Journal

    Monorail!

  • by PseudonymousBraveguy (1857734) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @11:29AM (#33150558)
    They are not the first trying to revive the airship. Several years ago, CargoLifter [wikipedia.org] was developing a "second generation airship". Despide heavy subsidaries they've gone insolvent, because the engeneering required to create an actually useful airship is not exactly trivial, and the list of potential customers is astonishingly small. Well, at least they left a damn big hangar that now contains a nice amusement park.
    • If you're interested in reading a 1980's review of efforts to make lighter-than-air lifting bodies, airships, and combinations of them, one of my favorite books is John McPhee's "The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed", which goes into considerable detail about the development of a blended-body lighter-than-air airfoil, but also discusses the use of blimps and dirigibles in the 1940's and 1950's. He's got some great stuff in there about their icing capabilities, too: airplanes fall out of the sky with 3 cm of ice over t
    • by Blakey Rat (99501)

      Yeah, or put another way, we've been hearing about it for 20 years now and we've never seen anything actually in the air... take this story with the same grain of salt.

    • They are not the first trying to revive the airship.

      I don't think they're even as high as the tenth... There's been a pretty steady stream of attempts since the 1960's.
       
      Of course, the lack of airships tooling about the skies should tell you much.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by mlts (1038732) *

      Popular Mechanics had a decent article on this last year:

      http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/aviation/airships/4242974 [popularmechanics.com]

      I hope the Cardington team gets funding and critical mass, because airships are quite usable for various tasks, and moving one around is a lot cheaper than moving a plane merely because that the lift is provided already. Airships have a lot of practical uses:

      1: Transportation of goods across the Atlantic or Pacific. It won't be as fast as a jet, but if done right, will be a lot fas

  • The only form of transportation I think could be better that trains is some combination of low-altitude flying pulled by engines on the ground. 100% electric, safety provided by ground, weight of engine, fuel, guidance, etc, supported by ground. Needs some kind of "rail", but fast-switching rails now can be as flexible as roads.
  • by Just_Say_Duhhh (1318603) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @11:33AM (#33150618)

    Sure, there is a place on this planet (or just above it) for airships. However, trans-atlantic passenger service isn't one of them.

    ‘You go to Richmond Park International. At 11 o’clock on Thursday you get on board the SkyCat200. There are hundreds of staterooms on it and you dinner dance your way across the Atlantic. At two o’clock on Friday afternoon you’re getting off at the East River in New York. You’ve travelled 3,000 miles overnight and there’s no jet lag.

    Or, you could get on an airplane, be in New York in a fraction of the time, and spend the rest of the day recovering from jet lag.

    Realistically, SkyCats would be most useful in the transport of heavy loads – the largest SkyCat can carry up to 200 tons – to harsh environments

    That's more like it. If you attack problems like heavy lifting, surveillance, even tasks like fighting forest fires, you don't have to sell it by saying "it's a hybrid"

    At that time they tested a full-sized airship against a range of artillery including a Russian mounted machine gun filled with .22 calibre armour-piercing incendiaries and a SAM-7 surface to air missile. What they learnt was this: the airship is almost invincible to attack. Helium is an inert gas, so it doesn’t explode.

    Did the test include shooting at the crew? I'm sure they'll find that sitting nearly motionless over a well-armed enemy does not make airship pilots invincible.

    • Did the test include shooting at the crew? I'm sure they'll find that sitting nearly motionless over a well-armed enemy does not make airship pilots invincible.

      WTF?! [lmgtfy.com]

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ArcherB (796902)

      Did the test include shooting at the crew? I'm sure they'll find that sitting nearly motionless over a well-armed enemy does not make airship pilots invincible.

      This was a test for military use. The military's plans for use in Afghanistan is for an unmanned, reconnaissance vehicle. No crew required.

  • You can call anything ecological now. BP successfully marketed themselves as an ecological energy company. They should stop calling these "airships" and call them "super-ecological-airplanes", quoting fuel usage compared to jets.
    • by gstoddart (321705)

      They should stop calling these "airships" and call them "super-ecological-airplanes"

      Ummm .. except that an "airplane" is specifically talking about something using a fixed wing [wikipedia.org] for lift.

      This is a lighter-than-air vessel that can be steered -- by definition, an airship [wikipedia.org].

      An airship and an airplane are fundamentally different in terms of how they fly.

  • by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @11:42AM (#33150724)
    This is a parade I've rained on before. Put simply, airships are incompatible with modern logistics and so are not cost effective. Why? Because they rely on buoyancy. Unless you are prepared to waste the expensive gas, turning around an aircraft with any significant cargo (and large numbers of humans are significant) either involves being able to hold the thing down with a force equivalent to its cargo load (not easy on something so large and prone to wind forces), or loading and unloading cargo at a similar rate so the mass of the total stays roughly constant. Otherwise, passengers and freight get off, thing heads rapidly skywards. Not good.

    Now imagine the costs if the thing must always take off at constant load. It would be like old sailing ships that had to fill up with gravel ballast to make safe return trips (because if they returned empty the wind could simply push them over.) Currently an Airbus 380 can transport about 150t of freight one way, and if it makes the return journey empty, OK it is a wasted trip but it requires less fuel for takeoff, which is significant on short hauls.

    If you try to solve the problem by having pumps to transfer gas from the envelope to storage tanks, to control the buoyancy, you have to factor in the cost of ferrying around the pumps and the tanks. It is not impossible, but it would be complicated and expensive and require extensive safety testing before it could be certified. Much of the simplicity relative to an airplane would be lost - and you still end up with something that requires as much or more room as a 380 - a helicopter replacement this is not.

    • by caseih (160668) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @01:19PM (#33151880)

      How did this get rated insightful? I guess neither the mods nor you bothered to read the article.

      These are hybrid vehicles. They aren't airships or balloons. It's not about lifting payload with gas alone; it's a lift hybrid system. The gas can offset anywhere from the weight of the vehicle to some percentage of the cargo. Thrusters and a lifting-body airfoil shape then provide the rest of the lift. From the research that has been done so far, this is feasible, practical, and economical. At this stage it is also economical to pump helium around to control the gas lift. Some designs use just fans to pump helium from large lifting bags into storage bags. Since the helium is at such a low pressure, it doesn't take much to move it and to change the buoyancy of the entire system.

      Really, it's not as hard or as bad as you make out. It appears to be absolutely practical in the long run. And these guys have years of experience in this field now, which you do not, as near as I can see. In fact you just made up the stuff in your comment. Sounds good and logical, but what you said has no basis in the current facts of the field, and is certainly not relevant to the types of airships this company is designing. In the article one of the guys bemoans the fact that armchair airship "experts" such as yourself have a real negative impact on public perception of these hybrid air vehicles and negatively impact their ability to research this stuff.

    • by Dr. Eggman (932300) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @01:37PM (#33152126)
      1. Solutions to issues ballast issues have long been explored. A combination of heating up or cooling down the lifting gas as well as collection of condensation via condensors can provide most if not all the ballast control the airship would need. Better yet, these solutions are both achievable through clever use of the exaust gas produced by engines, so they actually contribute very little additional load. No need to waste precious lifting gas. Checkout Buoyancy Compensator [wikipedia.org] for additional information.

      2. The article is about a hybrid air vehicle. These use a combining of helium lift, aerodynamic lift, a hovercraft landing system and vectored thrust, so it's not entirely reliant on maintaining bouyancy.
    • by IBitOBear (410965) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @02:06PM (#33152518) Homepage Journal

      (1) one only needs the "modern" technology of the "compressor" to re-compress the gas into dense storage cylinders. They _used_ to vent the gas because the compressors and storage were more expensive and heavy than the cheap replacement gas. Modern technology can solve this really easy. You can fit 80 cubic feet of air (so probably like 100 cubic feet of helium) into a scuba tank, and it would be quite heavy thereafter. Intelligently done, a large number of flexible ballon-like bladders and one or two semi-rigid (pressurized) bladders would be easily sufficient to change the overall displacement of an airship by up to 50 percent without even getting into "high" pressures (e.g. more than three atmospheres or so in the pressurized fixed-size bladders). It's not rocket science, its basic pressure mechanics and displacement.

      (2) many of the craft being discussed are only "mostly buoyant", with vectored thrust and lifting bodies etc, so that the static weight of the craft is neutrally boyant, then only the thrust to lift or fly the cargo is spent. E.g. the goal is to make the weight of the _vehicle_ free. Think of the helicopter. Right now we have to maintain thrust to lift the copter and the people, which uses far more fuel than just lifting the people.

      (2a) once you are lifting only the cargo weight, crashes are lots safter as something with the weight of the cargo but the drag profile of the whole vehicle will have a much lower in-atmosphere terminal velocity, unless of course someone decided to shape it like a giant dart pointing straight down. 8-)

      So, Good Sir Nay-Sayer, yes, if nobody actually thinks about the problem, then ballast becomes a hassle. But then again, if nobody thinks about breaks, a speeding car is quite a problem as well.

      • by IBitOBear (410965) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @02:38PM (#33153040) Homepage Journal

        The parent of my parent post brings up putting rocks in sailing vessels as argumentative support, he is wrong for at least two reasons.

        (1) Many modern non-sailing vessels still use ballast. The problem isn't old-timey nor is it "solved", nor is it _really_ the same issue as buoyancy with respect to airships. In a seagoing vessel the problem is that a non-trivial amount of the vessel must remain "above" the water over which the vessel must remain buoyant. As such, to remain upright, as cargo is loaded above the waterline, one must add weight below the water line to keep the ship upright. In an airship the entire ship is "submerged" in the air, so the issues are much simpler. That is, an airship and a submarine are in the same domain, but an airship and a sailing ship are not.

        [ASIDE: One of the things the boat commander of a submarine must watch for is rolling over during initial dive. In surface operation, the sub is a surface ship, and its center of gravity is below its center of buoyancy just like any other ship. In underwater operation the center of gravity must be above the center of buoyancy or it won't sink below the surface. That moment when the two must cross is tricky, as they must "cross", not "pass each other". That is, if say the port side takes on ballast faster, the center of gravity would pass to the port of the center of buoyancy and the ship would roll. The normal way to make this happen most safely is to be under-way at the time of submersion or surfacing so that the wing-like bow planes and rudder etc. can be used to counter any small tendency to roll. The single most dangerous submarine maneuver is the static (non-moving) submerge. It is virtually never done as messing it up is expensive in both lives and equipment. Surfacing is safer than submerging as "blowing" the ballast tanks can right the ship very quickly if it starts to roll, and can be done before reaching the surface. That leads to that really dramatic "breaching" thing where a significant fraction of the sub leaves the water entirely before crashing back to the surface. Dramatic, "safe", but again, hard on the men and gear. (I hear it's fun though... 8-)]

        (2) Ballast was much more spoken of, and "tricker" in the age of sail as the power source (the wind) wanted to push the ship over anyway. Additionally, _letting_ or even encouraging the wind to push the ship over a little (e.g. heeling) could lead to increased speeds and efficiencies.

        (3) Ballast in seagoing vessels is more important and variable because you want enough to stay upright, but each little bit more than that sinks the ship a little more, causing more of it to interface with the viscous watter instead of the less-viscous air.

        (4) Water can not be meaningfully compressed. Things "denser than" water also cannot be meaningfully compressed. (e.g. compressed enough to substantially effect displacement.) Air and lifting gas is eminently compressible. Consequently airships, in issues of both displacement and buoyancy, are completely dissimilar to anything seagoing (except a scuba diver in a wetsuit 8-) so none of the natures and limits you (grandparent poster) mention really apply as such.

  • It is not a blimp it is a rigid airship!
    Hello Airplanes? It's blimps... congratulations you win.

    -If you have not watched Archer, you have missed out.
  • would be cooler if it could also be a flarecraft in ground effect.

  • by beschra (1424727) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @11:56AM (#33150886)
    I think the acronym for Hybrid Air Vehicle has a lot of potential.
  • Why would I want to? It's a wonderful word.

    > because that has a lot of history

    Yes. A fine one.

  • You win.

      – Archer

    Seriously - no Archer fans here? My god this so the Skytanic!

    Danger zone anyone? Anyone?

    -CF
  • by Animats (122034) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @12:06PM (#33151028) Homepage

    Lockheed's P-791 airship [youtube.com] has been flying around Palmdale for several years now. This is a product of Lockheed's Skunk Works. It is slightly heavier than air, and those four "feet" are lift fans. This has advantages and disadvantages. It takes fuel to stay up, for one. On the other hand, takeoff and landing are easier; the craft can land on a runway and taxi as a hovercraft. No mooring mast required.

    The P-791 looks far more controllable than any previous airship. Rudders and elevators are ineffective at low speed. The P-791 has four propellers, each fully and independently steerable in two axes, plus speed, and maybe blade pitch. Plus the four lift fans. So it is controllable in all six degrees of freedom, even at zero speed. With classic airships, having twenty controls to manage by hand would be hopeless. With flight control computers, it's possible, once the airship has been characterized. That's really what flight tests of the P-791 are for - figuring out the control strategies. In the video,it's clear that the propellers are all being steered independently, which indicates computers and sensors are busily working to stabilize the beast. This is probably an easier job for the Skunk Works controls team than any of the stealth fighters they've done, all of which are unstable in all three axes.

    The Zeppelin NT [airshipventures.com] has a similar, but less flexible system, with three steerable fans plus a lateral tail rotor, all controlled by a fly-by-wire system. I suspect that the Skunk Works put more degrees of freedom into their prototype than are really needed, so that they could experiment with different control strategies and find the best way to control their unusual craft.

    The Zeppelin NT has a compressor system, so they can reduce lift by compressing some helium into a high pressure tank and letting some of the ballonets deflate a little. This is preferable to dumping ballast or helium.

  • Even if it runs on renewable energy, isnt there a Heluim shortage that will make it dependent on a scarce non renewable "propulsion" source?
  • Vaccuum ships? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Mantrid (250133) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @12:12PM (#33151112) Journal

    If Helium rises because it is less dense, would it be possible to force a balloon open, using some sort of supports, and end up with essentially a balloon filled with nothing, and thus able to rise? Or is this beyond current material science?

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by smellsofbikes (890263)

      If Helium rises because it is less dense, would it be possible to force a balloon open, using some sort of supports, and end up with essentially a balloon filled with nothing, and thus able to rise? Or is this beyond current material science?

      I tried to calculate this a couple years ago, and using metal with an excellent strength/weight ratio -- Aermet 310 -- and a spherical model with stiffening ribs, I couldn't find any viable solution: no matter how large the diameter of the sphere, the weight of the metal required to contain the vacuum against the external air pressure was greater than the vessel buoyancy, and I went up into kilometer-radius ranges.

      I didn't try it with composites because that's a lot harder to make valid design assumptions,

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Remus Shepherd (32833)

      A vacuum balloon is going to be very difficult if not impossible.

      A vacuum aerogel, however, might be in the realm of possibility. Aerogels have been made with evacuated bubbles inside, making the whole lighter than air. [youtube.com] The record so far is apparently 1 mg/cm^3 [wikipedia.org], which is just lighter than air at 1.2 mg/cm^3. That's not great, but it's a young technology that will get better.

      Alas, a vacuum aerogel airship would need to be very large -- too large to make on Earth. We would need orbital manufacturing facil

  • by jklovanc (1603149) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @02:17PM (#33152728)

    Airships are slow; there is no way around it. They have huge cross sections and drag is a big factor. If your airspeed is 30knots going into a 30knot headwind your ground speed is 0knots. Even a moderate wind of 10knots will decrease your speed by 33%. Crosswinds are a similar issue. An airship can spend much of its forward speed compensating for winds.

    Mass is also an issue. Large airships are docked to towers to keep them on one place for loading and unloading. This docking process is very precise. It is somewhat like porcupines kissing; too fast and the tower gets knocked over and/or the airship damaged, too slow and you never get there. Winds complicate the matter. Many accidents have happened due to strong gusts or wind dieing at inopportune times.

    Then there is landing area. Each airship needs a circle at least the radius equal to the length of the airship as it needs to be able to swivel into the wind. You could put the airship inside a hanger but that maneuver it tricky (can not be done in windy conditions) and the hangers are huge/expensive.

    Depending on the winds, the airship may note get out of the hanger, get loaded, get launched, reach the destination, get tethered and or get unloaded. This makes flights very unreliable in even moderate weather.

    I just love how the article says that airships will save lives in Nunavut. I am sure that sending 200 tons of stuff that the locals can not afford to buy will really help the situation. Throwing stuff at people is not the solution to social issues.

  • by cartman (18204) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @02:37PM (#33153028)

    The main determinants of fuel consumption are: 1) speed; and 2) the surface area of the front of the vehicle (since that determines how much air must be pushed out of the way). Since airships are very large, they will never be fuel efficient unless they travel very slowly. If they travel very slowly, then we must ask: why not use a train or a ship? Trains and ships will always have vastly greater carrying capacity, because they don't require helium to lift their cargo which has modest lift for a given volume.

    In short: if speed is not important, then trains and ships will always be far cheaper and carry far more; and if speed is important, then airplanes will always be faster and more fuel-efficient at high speeds.

    Airships are neglected because they suffer from fundamental limitations and therefore have few uses.

    Granted, airships may find niche uses. Airships do have several advantages: first, they can hover for long periods; and second, they require little infrastructure (like long landing strips, ports, or train tracks). Since they can hover for long periods, they have found a use as floating advertisements, and they may find a use as floating observation vehicles for the military. Since they don't require infrastructure, they may find a use in transporting cargo to areas which lack airports, train tracks, or ports. But they will never take over the bulk of transport between major areas, because of fundamental limitations of the technology.

    Every few years, someone starts a company to revive the airship. The venture always fails, because o
    f fundamental limitations of airships that will always prevent widespread adoption. Perhaps some com
    pany will eventually succeed, but they will succeed in a niche market, not widely.

  • by Rogerborg (306625) on Thursday August 05, 2010 @04:58PM (#33154726) Homepage
    They'll all be designed with Linux on the desktop. And the best bit is, we'll have plenty of helium from all the fusion power plants!

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