Google Co-Founder Looks To Revive Airships, But This Steampunk Industry Already Has Plenty Of Competition

Alphabet Inc.'s GOOG GOOGL Google co-founder Sergey Brin is on an unlikely quest to bring airships back with his newest company, Lighter Than Air. But this nascent retrofuturistic space has a surprising number of competitors.

What Happened: Brin's firm is on a hiring spree of aerospace engineers in Silicon Valley and Akron, Ohio, a site famous for the Goodyear blimp, according to a Saturday Financial Times report

The firm, incorporated in 2014, used to spend $131,000 for its Moffett airfield lease but increased it to $1.1 million in 2019 and then $10.9 million in 12 months before March 2022, showing development is accelerating.

Lighter Than Air hopes to reintroduce the airship in an emission-free avatar, at a time of increased awareness about conventional air travel's effects on global warming.

Pathfinder 1, the firm's first full-size airship, is 120 meters long (or 1.3 football fields) and is scheduled to begin test flights later this year.

Lighter Than Air is also already working on a much-bigger Pathfinder 3 in its Akron air dock facility, a building that purportedly was the world’s largest building when it was completed in 1929 and remains one of the world’s largest aerospace facilities today. This facility is also aggressively hiring and is expected to lead the company to double its headcount to more than 400 people over the next few months.

Alan Weston, a former NASA program director who leads Lighter Than Air since 2016, told local news reporters in May that the firm is building "the largest air vehicle on earth" that aims to carry as many as 96 tonnes across a range of up to 10,000 miles after its completion scheduled for next year.

While astonishingly big, the Pathfinder 3 would not be the biggest air vehicle to have ever flown. The infamous Hindenburg-class airship, considered the future of air travel in the 1930s, was a whole 60 m longer at 245 m, or nearly 2.7 football fields. One such airship went up in flames in New Jersey on May 6, 1937, killing 36 people and setting in motion a cascade of events that brought down the entire industry.

Surprisingly Competitive Space

While most people think that airships are little more than a footnote in history books, there is a surprising number of companies working to revive them, with some even already using them commercially. 

United Kingdom firm Hybrid Air Vehicles hopes that its helium-filled Airlander 10 and Airlander 50 will enable emission-free flight.

The current version of the Airlander only supports combustion engines that purportedly reduce CO2 emissions by 75% compared to traditional flights, while an upcoming hybrid-electric version would ramp that up to 90%. A future, all-electric, configuration option would result in completely emission-free flight for the company's airships.

The company says the Airlander 10 can stay airborne for up to five days at a time, fly 10 tonnes of payload, and has a range of 4,000 nautical miles at a maximum altitude of 20,000 feet. The Airlander 50, still in development, boasts a maximum of 50 tonnes of payload, 200 passengers, and 2,200 km of range at the max payload.

Lockheed Martin Corp's LMT LMH-1 is an airship capable of carrying 21.3 tonnes and up to 19 passengers over ranges up to 1,400 m at a cruise speed of nearly 70 mph. The airship's buoyancy is 80% driven by helium, while the rest comes from an aerodynamic lift with its motors consuming under 10% of a helicopter's fuel.

Although Lockheed's airship may seem like a bit of an experimental gimmick, the firm was able to secure a $480 million deal with Straightline Aviation (SLA), which in 2016 signed a letter of intent to purchase 12 units. The same year, Quest Rare Minerals signed a lease with Straightline to use seven airships over 10 years starting in 2019 for $850 million.

United Kingdom-based Varialift uses an airship completely made out of aluminum and says its study "identifies a market for thousands of its airships" that allows "cargo access to remote areas with no infrastructure at a tiny fraction of the cost of cargo helicopters." 

So far, the firm has built a proof-of-concept test vehicle and is now building a fully operational prototype to train future pilots and attract investment to build the mass manufacturing plant for its 50 tonnes and 250-tonne payload airship variants.

Varialift secured a 40-hectare site for making airships from the town of Chateaudun and expects to employ about 300 staff within four years. The machines will be capable of vertical take-off and landing without dedicated infrastructure, operating in strong front and crosswinds of up to 50 knots (57.5 mph), flying at 150-218 mph while using 80% to 90% less fuel than equivalent aircraft and costing 80% to 90% less than equivalent payload aircraft to purchase and operate. 

The machines are expected to have at least 40 years of working life which would result in no helium loss during normal operations. The theoretical maximum such an airship could be made to hold is 3,000 tonnes.

Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, the firm that dominated the space and whose name became a moniker for airships, was brought back to life in 1993 from its residual assets after almost 50 years since its disappearance. 

This re-emergence was followed by the funding of Zeppelin-Reederei GmbH in 2001, which developed its Zeppelin NT airship and partnered with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. GT to replace the firm's signature blimps with its airship. The Zeppelin NT is capable of carrying up to 12 passengers or 4,200 lb of cargo with a crew of two at a maximum speed of 77 mph and a range of 560 miles at a maximum height of 8,530 feet.

Research from 2019 suggests Airships may provide a more environmentally-conscious alternative to maritime shipping by using stratospheric jet stream currents that can exceed 275 miles per hour, and at heights where turbulence and weather interference are absent. 

The paper says jet streams (with an average speed of 103 mph) would be capable of moving airships or balloons at altitudes of 10 to 20 km, ferrying cargo faster than conventional shipping. Round-the-world trips would take 16 days in the northern hemisphere and 14 in the southern hemisphere.

The ships and balloons in the research paper are fueled by hydrogen, an extremely flammable substance, prompting the suggestion for an entirely automated operation, including cargo loading and unloading.

A 2019 report by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis suggested reintroducing airships into the world’s transportation mix could lower the transport industry's carbon emissions and "increase the feasibility of a 100% sustainable world." Transport is responsible for 25% of global CO2 emissions and 3% of those come from cargo ships — a metric expected to increase between 50% and 250% before 2050.

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