Islands at the Top of the World – Airships Revisited

As energy costs rise and resources continue to deplete, seemingly defunct technologies tend to resurface. Airships are one such innovation, garnering more attention in recent years after decades of dormancy. Airships are ‘lighter than air’ structures that remain aloft with a lifting gas, such as helium. Propelled in a similar fashion to boats – using rudders and propellers, airships are presently used for advertising, tourism and aerial observation. New innovative research, however, is improving the speed and maneuverability of airships, making them a competitive means of transport in a fuel starved economy.

Jetfuel currently accounts for twelve percent of the CO2 emissions in the United States. With increases in air travel, once ‘impractical’ alternatives such as biofuels and airships are becoming viable solutions to lower fossil fuel consumption. The Spirit of Dubai, an airship primarily used for advertising, boasts that it uses less fuel in a week than a Boeing 767 consumes by traveling from gate to runway. The low fuel consumption has incited explorations into the cargo transporting ability of airships, particularly when speed is not vital. Airships are also useful for ‘hovering’ – sparking design interests from surveillance and observation to an ‘internet airship’ that can provide wireless access to mobile computer users.

Recently, Lockheed Martin was contracted by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Air Force to construct a prototype airship that would be solar powered. Termed the HAATM (High Altitude Airship), the airship is an unmanned structure that is located high above the jetstream (where the airs are calm) to provide surveillance and weather monitoring. The large surface areas of airships (which greatly increases their drag) provide an ideal site for solar farming – harnessing energy while transporting goods and people.

The Russian company, Ros AeroSystems is developing a high altitude airship that can carry 1200 kg – effectively transforming the routes that cargo is distributed. With an average daily power consumption of 100-230 kW, the ‘Berkut’ is equipped with solar cells to reduce energy consumption and increase endurance.

The American company Aeros has developed an ‘aeroscraft’ that can cruise at speeds of 200km/hr. An aeroscraft is a partially buoyant airship that also has gas cells that allows it to control lift while in the air or on the ground. Further, the 64m aeroscraft is being examined and tested to carry loads up to 60 tons. While unable to seat large number of passengers (currently seating only 20), the aeroscraft ML866 comes equipped with mobile program – conference rooms, libraries, hotel rooms, etc., effectively absorbing the grey goo of airport urbanism within the transport vessel itself.

While airship travel is appealing, there are still some challenges to overcome before air cruises become universal. First, is the reliance on helium. While helium is the second most abundant element in the observable Universe, it is quite rare on Earth. Although hydrogen gas is more buoyant than helium, it does not have the non-flammable characteristics of helium. Secondly, the load capacity of airships needs to increase to make these viable for mass transport. Currently, they are ‘luxurious’ only because they have more space than load capacity. By increasing their passenger and cargo capacity, they can attract a larger-than-luxury consumer base. The last obstacle to overcome would be traveler’s patience. Perhaps being in an island on top of the world will be worth the week long trip to Europe.

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