Airships Are Making A Comeback

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Airships and balloons enjoyed a peak in popularity during the early half of the 20th century. Following the Hindenburg disaster, the popularity of airships, also known as zeppelins, waned, and they remain in the public consciousness only as a relic of the past. The importance of these craft, however, is seriously underrated.

Beyond their image of luxury air travel for the rich, airships had a slew of highly practical uses. From transporting goods to military surveillance, aerostats have had commercial and military applications. While airships have been largely superseded by aeroplanes, they are enjoying a resurgence in recent years.

In 2010, Northrop Grumman together with Hybrid Air Vehicles were commissioned to produce a Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) system for the US military. The intended goal of the project was to provide a surveillance and reconnaissance air vehicle that would be easy to operate, able to maintain position in the air for extended periods of time, and deliver payloads and equipment. While the project was scrapped by the US military, it has since been picked up with the British Royal Air Force.

The advantages of aerostats for this sort of mission – reconnaissance and heavy lifting – cannot be understated. While airplanes are able to perform them, costs of operation are significantly lower for airships. Countries now must perform an ever-growing number of surveillance and reconnaissance missions in hostile territory, both to prevent terrorist activity in an area and to maintain terrain dominance. Airships, as well as balloons, provide a cost effective solution.

This is why it is a positive sign to see Lockheed Martin’s advances in the field. The company has now received approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration to sell its airship for commercial purposes. Beyond the obvious and necessary military applications, airships have a host of uses in the private sphere as well. Lockheed, through Hybrid Enterprises, is looking to sell its Hybrid Airship to companies operating in remote, hard to access areas.

“We really envision these aircraft being utilized in remote operations, in support of industrial operations, oil and gas, mining, as well as civil support,” Brian Bauer, chief commercial officer at Hybrid Enterprises, said.

Lockheed has launched a 21-tonne version of its modern take on the airship, and plans to scale up to 90-tonnes, as well as a gigantic 500-tonne airship. The smallest version will set one back about $40 million, but savings over the long run could be immense.

Here is a video of the giant in action:

If the project succeeds, and the technology once again becomes viable and widespread, its adaptations could be incredibly useful. From commercial transport, to search and rescue, to surveillance – airships could reduce costs and increase efficiency in many walks of life.