Is that a giant, three-pronged marshmallow? Or a blimp on steroids? It’s actually the Airlander, a massive airship with an uncertain but intriguing future. While some automatically think of the Hindenburg disaster when seeing an airship, others see potential.
“The limit is only people’s imagination. We’re finding people are coming to us with more and more ideas,” said Hybrid Air Vehicles spokesman Chris Daniels, who envisions a use in humanitarian missions, academic research, and tourism in remote locations such as the Amazon rain forest.
That’s a far cry from the Airlander’s beginnings. It was first developed for the U.S. Army as something of a spy blimp, but it never fully materialized. A British company, Hybrid Air Vehicles, repurchased it and had its pieces shipped across the Atlantic Ocean. Now it’s reassembling the Airlander in a huge hanger and seeking new uses for the vessel.
Currently Hybrid Air Vehicles has no concrete plans or business partnerships lined up. One potential request came from a professor interested in using it to film ocean-based wildlife for an IMAX film.
The company may build more of the airships, depending on how much interest it gets. Daniels said the Airlander costs about $40 million to build. A version that could carry 55 tons would cost about $100 million.
At 300 feet in length it is about 60 feet longer than the largest jets from Boeing and Airbus. The Airlander doesn’t need a traditional runway to land. It is powered by four diesel engines and held aloft by helium. In its current configuration, the Airlander sits about 20 people and can carry between 3,300 pounds and 11 tons.
“A decade ago, the only commercial market for airships was advertising and carrying TV cameras at a football game. All these airships were inflatables, or ‘blimps.’ There is now a worldwide competition to develop cargo airships,” wrote Barry Prentice, a professor at the University of Manitoba in a recent paper. “The most important remaining barrier to a cargo airship industry is the lack of business confidence.”
To convince those with doubts, Hybrid Air Vehicles plans for a test flight in December. Then it’ll begin a 200-hour test flight program to receive a permit to fly in Britain. Daniels said the company anticipates flying to Canada in 2015 for a demonstration. Then the Airlander will make its way south toward Rio, host of the 2016 Olympic Games.