Friday, February 26, 2016

Lighter Than Air Dreams

Originally introduced in WW I as surveillance platforms, lighter than air vehicles are making a comeback even in competition with drones.  For one thing they can carry a lot of stuff including people and stay on station like forever

In the meantime, his surveillance-blimp business is thriving. A new, larger Sky Dragon, capable of carrying two thousand pounds of cameras and other spy equipment, just went into production. Customers in the Middle East are using Aeros equipment to monitor oil fields, and the Ukrainian government just signed a deal for an entire “integrated Ukrainian border-protection system.”
Jeanne Marie Laskas at the New Yorker has an interesting article on the competition to beef up the blimps (or zeppelins as the case may be) to large cargo delivery vehicles (like north of 20 tons).
The point, which Boyd makes in a promotional video, “The Road Not Needed,” is that “more than two-thirds of the world’s land area and more than half the world’s population has no direct access to paved roads.” Modern airships could take off and land with the precision of helicopters and deliver entire warehouses, drilling rigs, or fully stocked factories. Today’s airship designers share a vision: magnificent amounts of trucking going on in the sky—regular convoys of enormous airships carrying timber, coal, wind turbines, prefabricated homes, or an entire summer harvest, puttering gently along at about a hundred miles an hour, ten thousand feet over our heads.
There are applications which has kept the airship business running, advertising and surveillance, but cargo is the elephant, and indeed to compete with air and sea delivery on a general basis, the amount of cargo delivered has to be enormous.or the need has to be to a region where roads and airports are rare such as the Arctic, or the Amazon.

Airships are faster than sea transport and slower than airplanes.  They can be designed to be fuel efficient compared to both moreover solar powered designs have been at least proposed.  Perhaps a partial solution.


Nick Stokes said...

Is there enough helium? Or is hydrogen manageable now?

Russell Seitz said...

Does this mean COP-22 will be held in Friedrichhafen ?

EliRabett said...

Enough helium IEHO really depends on the leakage rate.

Kyle Splawn said...

Every few years there's a flurry of stories about a new development in LtA craft and the hope that it signals a turning point for the giant whale-like skythings.

And it never quite pans out to be the revival people hope for. The problems are usually the same: airships can't compete with planes, helicopters, or other aircraft in almost all cases. There are niches where they can thrive, but most of those involve staying airborne and in one place for a really really long time. Not exactly the best niche for cargo and delivery, transportation, or other and more high-demand roles for aircraft.

Brian said...

I wonder if some of the fruits, veggies and flowers that get transported by airplane would do okay by airship.

Also sounds like a great way to move things around Antarctica.

I agree with what Kyle said though - people really want airships to come back and their hopes may get ahead of them.

Hank Roberts said...

I wonder if this would answer the dream of vacuum zeppelins -- structures light enough and strong enough to pump empty so they'd float.

After all, what's lighter than helium? Hydrogen.
And what's lighter than hydrogen? Nothing.

So the goal is to fill our huge lifting bubbles with: Nothing.

Hank Roberts said...

Google has developed a lighter than air material is says could 'change how we interact with the sky,' the boss of its secretive research division has revealed.

Astro Teller, the head of X, the search giant's lab designed to work on 'out there' projects ..., revealed the still secret project in his latest TED talk, when he revealed the firm abandoned plans for a cargo airship.

'As often happens, we may get a phoenix from the ashes of this project — the cargo project got us thinking about how we could make something lighter than air,' he said in a version of his talk posted on Backchannel.

'Now we’re investigating a new material that’s super strong but wants to float.

'It could change how we interact with the sky, buildings, transportation, and more. Stay tuned!'

Alas, if Google "abandoned plans for a cargo airship" then it seems unlikely their lighter-than-air material is strong enough to hold a bubble of vacuum. Or else they're going straight to passenger yachts that float in the air and sky castles, I guess....

David B. Benson said...

The biggest problem is the lack of control in a wind. So only useful on calm days.

For example, small blimps seem ideal for logging to transport the felled and trimmed log out of the woods, all without the cost of a haul road, i.e., a dirt track for a hauler.

But gusts in the mountains wreck the idea and helicopters are used instead.

Ed Darrell said...

Don't know where it came from, and I don't remember the author's name; my parents had a delightful little book with an aluminum-color cover, published in 1947, titled Why Has America No Rigid Airships?

It made the case that, especially after World War II, the future of aviation was in dirigibles.

I admired the book for its can-do, high-spirited advocacy for one technology, and for its astounding underestimation of heavier-than-air craft, especially jets.

Sadly, when I took it to U.S. history in my junior year, it mysteriously disappeared.

It would be fun to track down another copy of that thing, and check it again, both for the good reasons dirigibles should be part of our defenses, and for the errors of ability of other technologies.

It asked the same question being asked today.

bluegrue said...

In Germany we have had the attempt to build the Cargolifter [1,2], starting in 1996 and announcing insolvency in 2002. Back then experts in Friedrichhafen expected the Cargolifter to not be competetive, citing projected transport cost to be 10 times higher than land or sea transport [3]. The projected transport costs of 2.17 DEM per ton and km, compared to the 0.33 DEM targeted by Cargolifter AG.

[2] (way more details)

Hank Roberts said...

> lack of control in a wind. So only useful on calm days.

Well, if you know more than they used to know about winds -- along the lines of Project Loon -- you can rise to where the wind's going in the direction you want. That could have saved quite a few of the early rigid airships, I suspect. And they were rather fragile.

For freight, the last few miles can be delivered when weather allows. For the long cross country work, routes don't need to be flexible.

So build an elevated rail along existing rights-of-way (like pipelines or the Interstate Highway system in the US, stay away from the high voltage lines) and run along that with an adjustable tether (or a couple of them with some separation, to triangulate). Worst case you drop anchor in the median and hunker down during a windstorm.

A smart shape lifting body that could reconfigure itself with a few hinges and rearranging internal gas bags would also let a lighter-than-air craft hunker down, come to think of it.

Kind of the reverse of the "Deltoid Pumpkin Seed" aircraft John McPhee wrote about -- shape it for airfoil lift in regular use, or the inverse to hold it to the ground in a windstorm.

jch1952 said...

I used to build hot-air balloons, and some of my former colleagues are in the blimp surveillance business. One of them decided to drop in and eat at his favorite restaurant. He tied his blimp off in the parking lot and went inside to eat. When he came out his blimp was gone. The Coastguard found it way out to sea.

Everett F Sargent said...


Off topic ...

Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 °C global warming is highly dangerous

"A revision of this discussion paper was accepted for the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (ACP)."

[v1] Wed, 3 Feb 2016 18:00:24 GMT (3338kb)
78 pages, 58 figures; submitted to Atmos. Chem. Phys

Coming soon, in final form, in ACP.

Russell Seitz said...

Advances in textile strength make me more sanguine about blimp than Zeppelin revivivals .

Still, spinnakers and squalls don't mix- I suspect insurance premums will continue to limit both.

Ken Fabian said...

Hank - a lighter than air material? Perhaps some kind of vacuum gel or foam? But I have visions of airborne litter too - such a material could be very problematic. It seems we need a way for Hydrogen to be used safely. Antistatic materials? Active fire suppression systems? Smaller shells of Helium surrounding a larger containers of H2?

Andrew said...

You could lift with neon, admittedly with a lot less capacity.

HF might also work in warmer zones, but there health and safety brigade would probably whine.

More realistically, hydrogen in flame proof bags?

Has a list. Personally, I thought that DiBorane was just silly..

Hank Roberts said...

>airborne litter

Yeah, imagine the air as full of plastic as the ocean is now.

I'd guess we're entirely capable of producing enough fragments of vacuum-filled airborne plastic trash to put the planet back in an ice age.

Hank Roberts said...

> blimp than zeppelin
Well, all designs benefit from better gas-tight textiles -- to keep gas in or to keep atmosphere out, if a vacuum lifting body could be built without collapsing.

Helium isn't going to get any cheaper, unless the fracking people turn out to be able to provide it -- but there aren't that many reservoirs.

I can imagine a vacuum zep could be reconfigured quickly into a less aerodynamic shape when the wind came up. It'd still likely require an external power source or a lot of pedaling to crank the frame back into a space-filling shape after flattening it into a hurricane-tolerant grounded pancake shape.

But I suppose while I'm wishing, I might as well wish for the pocket solar-powered hydrogen-to-helium fusion engine to operate a combination hot air balloon, helium lifting body, and a high altitude oxygen supply. Just suck up a cloud now and then for the H2O to crack.

On the other hand, if you believe this guy, the atmosphere's getting heavier fast, so our poor lifting gases will be more efficient.
Monitor Shows Carbon Monoxide Spikes to 40,000 Parts Per Billion over California on February 26 — What the Heck is Going On?
On February 26, The Global Forecast System model recorded an (unconfirmed) intense and wide-ranging carbon monoxide (CO) spike over the US West Coast....

After all, one data point way outside the past history HAS to prove a new trend. Doesn't it? Huh?