What happened to airship renaissance?

Forscher scs / Wikipedia

There was a time when it looked like airships – dirigibles, zeppelins, blimps and the like – are the future. Firms manufacturing them were popping up left and right, they were all over the news, and their promised capabilities looked just unimaginably exciting. Safe, cheap, sustainable, fast, convenient… 

That happened twice, actually. In the 1920s and 30s for the first time, then once again, between the 1990s and 2010s.

The story of the first golden age of airships is well known. They appeared at the very end of the 19th century, were popular, well liked, and seemed to be the perfect transport, offering flight distances and payload capacities not available to contemporary airplanes, while soundly beating almost any land- and sea-based mode of transport with their speed.

But in the 1930s, thanks in part to the wide media coverage of the Hindenburg disaster, they quickly fell out of favor – just in time for the new generations or large airplanes to take the lead in air travel and air cargo.

Those early airships were bulky, difficult to control, and tremendously unsafe. But all of their limitations could be easily negated with new materials, technologies and safety standards. Airships are perfect for many tasks contemporary aviation is not particularly good at: loitering for a long time at one place, efficiently transporting heavy and oversized cargo, and in general, not consuming obscene amounts of fuel. On top of that, airships are much quieter and much cleaner than airplanes, something extremely important in our day and age. So, isn’t it the perfect time to start building them?

That is the story told time and time again in thousands of sales pitches on the verge of the 21st century, when numerous startups vowed to resurrect the airship and make it flyable, profitable and safe again.

High hopes

Most people probably heard such a pitch with Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) Airlander 10, which held the title of world’s largest aircraft between 2012 and 2017, and was probably the most publicized of the lot. It was intended as a military surveillance platform, before being rejected by the US Army and repurposed for civilian use.

Along with it, many ventures were created in the hopes that airships, with their long endurance, are the future of surveillance. French A-NSE and British Airship Industries are amongst the most prominent of them. Blackwater, the infamous private military company, jumped on the trend with their Polar 400 Airship. It was followed by aeronautical giants – Lockheed Martin with the P-791 and Northrop Grumman with the LEMV. The last of them got awarded a $150 million contract by DARPA.

The P-791 project was later repurposed for civilian use, just like Airlander 10. Boeing’s SkyHook was civilian from the start. German CargoLifter, Italian Nimbus EosXi and several others looked into providing cargo or passenger services with unmatched efficiency; even the Zeppelin company, barely active since the WWII, has resurrected their aeronautical arm as Luftschiffbau Zeppelin and promised to resume manufacturing of airships.

Some of these projects planned to use non-flammable helium, others – improve the reputation of hydrogen. Some tried to return to the rigid frame of pre-war airships, while others constructed semi-rigid or fully collapsible airframes. Some used helicopter rotors for additional lift, others made their airships with various kinds of additional lifting surfaces. The most ambitious ones – notably, Walrus HULA project by DARPA and some others – proposed ships tens of times larger than Hindenburg, that would lift hundreds of tons of cargo and carry it almost without consuming fuel, drifting along in air currents, using atmospheric ion propulsion, or some other exotic technology.

All of these proposals were born between the mid-1990s and mid-2010s, the time when the idea of the “renaissance of airships” floated in the air. 

There were several proposals that predate that: companies like Piasecki, AeroLift, Aereon and Aeros were some of the forerunners, offering to provide the US army with patrol, cargo or other kind of airship already in the 80s, and pitching the same story – that now is the perfect time to resurrect the undeservedly-forgotten concept, update it with latest advances, and fly straight into the lighter-than-air future. Some of them constructed a prototype or two before going bust.

What happened?

As of the early 2021, of the whole slew of airship startups, only several remain. Large corporations – such as Boeing and Northrop Grumman – forgot their proposals completely. Lockheed Martin has been delaying the first flight of the commercial variant of the P-791 since 2017, and hasn’t spoken about it for the last year. The US Army’s plan to have a fleet of surveillance airships collapsed already in 2012, taking many projects with it, and while some blimps saw action in Afghanistan – including Blackwater’s – they were completely superseded by new, relatively cheap and available long-endurance heavier-than-air drones. 

Dedicated cargo airships did not fare better. The Airlander 10 prototype crashed in 2017, HAV decided not to restore the aircraft, and focus on the development of the version for mass production. It has been receiving significant backing both through crowdfunding and state grants ever since, and issuing progress updates regularly. It promises entry into service in 2025.

Ironically, Luftschiffbau Zeppelin – the company which pioneered the airship and was in the center of industry’s first collapse – may have been the biggest beneficiary of its rebirth. Only a fraction of its revenue is generated by manufacturing and sales of actual airships, but since the resumption of this line of work in 2001, half a dozen of their N07-101s were sold, mostly for advertising purposes and for performing joyrides. In fact, company’s ships remain the only option for an enthusiast to experience a flight on an airship today. 

That half a dozen is quite definitely not a success story though. And it, along with all the other failures, puts the new era of airships into a place which it could not avoid. The chasm.

What now?

Geoffrey A. Moore’s curve of new technology adoption rides somewhere between a cliché and a ubiquitously accepted fact. It proposes that every new technological achievement goes through several phases, being adopted at first by risk-taking pioneers, before finding its way into the mainstream audience. Between those states, there is the chasm: the part where the wide public gets disillusioned with the technology, its shortcomings become apparent, and there is a risk that the development will stop.

New generation of airships, quite clearly, have entered the chasm now. Will they find a way out of it? On one hand, the COVID-19 crisis and the near-collapse of the aviation industry as a whole may have been the final nail in their coffin, which has already been sealed half-a-decade before. 

On the other hand, the same circumstances brought the rise of the cargo sector, and an unparalleled appetite for efficiency. At the same time, the maritime transport industry was in turmoil in 2020, showing the weakening already in 2019. Some experts are talking of the collapse of global supply chains, and while the wholesale shipping apocalypse may seem far-fetched, there is no denying that things are bound to change.

The resumption of airships’ renaissance rests on the question whether HAV and some other less dormant companies will be able to use this situation to their advantage. Airships sit in a gap between aircraft and ships, and for the cargo industry, offer some advantages of both. As both the air and maritime transport is posed to have the rise in demand, a new niche may have opened, providing at least a narrow possibility for us to see the giants floating in the skies once again.

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