The idea of using airships in the 21st century is rather counterintuitive. The lumbering beasts seem excruciatingly slow, large and unwieldy – a polar opposite of sleek, fast jets. And some would argue that they still have an aura of disaster, a legacy from a series of crashes in the early 20th century.
So, it would require a lot of effort to pitch them to the public as something modern and desirable. Yet many enthusiasts have tried to do exactly that. In recent years, scores of companies have spent time and money developing a new generation of airships, racing to build blimps that could be used for everything from joyrides and cargo transportation to surveillance.
For the proponents of this resurgence, the main selling point of airships was efficiency. Unlike airplanes or helicopters, lighter-than-air aircraft do not have to run powerful engines to stay airborne. They consume much less fuel, and thus – in theory – could be much cheaper to operate, on top of being more environmentally friendly.
But, for one reason or another, the wave of excitement around the resurrection of airships waned. Most ventures dissolved without even constructing a prototype; militaries and large aerospace companies stopped investing in the field, and even the Zeppelin company, which brought back its airship-producing arm after half a century, was content to make just a dozen airships.
The technology entered what is sometimes referred to as ‘the chasm’ – the period when the rose-tinted glasses fall off, enthusiasm dies, and reality starts weighing hard on ideas that seemed within reach just a short time ago. Not all new and exciting technologies survive this period. Could airships fall victim to this?
Well, some airship companies are still in the market. They continue to talk of lighter-than-air as the transport of the future, and try to attract attention and capital with regular updates.
Convenience and comfort
Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) is one of these companies. A few years ago it was the poster child of the airship renaissance; nowadays it is the only company that stays in the zeitgeist by regularly churning out well-tailored press releases about its ships’ design upgrades.
Its main product is the Airlander 10, a helium-filled non-rigid airship with three options for engines – diesel, hybrid or fully electric. It was conceived as a military platform back when the world’s air forces intended to use airships for surveillance. After the idea was dropped, HAV reoriented itself towards the civilian market, adapting the already-constructed prototype.
The company has been on the same track ever since. It asserts that airships are the perfect vehicle for a whole range of missions that require efficiency and versatility rather than speed: an ability to take off and land vertically makes it as useful as any helicopter, but at a fraction of service cost. Delivering supplies to remote locations with unprepared landing areas would be bread and butter to the airship, and it could very well become an important part of disaster relief efforts worldwide.
Recently, HAV has also tried putting an emphasis on premium travel. After revealing the first renders of its spacious passenger cabin in early June 2021, George Land, Commercial Business Development Director, said something that modern airlines (especially the ones like Emirates and Qatar) could perceive as an insult: “For many decades flying from A to B has meant sitting in a metal tube with tiny windows – a necessity but not always a pleasure. On Airlander, the whole experience is pleasant, even enjoyable.”
Joyrides always were a part of airships’ repertoire, and with ceiling-to-floor windows, as well as an ability to safely cruise at low altitude, the Airlander is well suited for that. Yet – as Zeppelin’s example shows – the market is not particularly large, and it would seem overly optimistic to expect multi-billion dollar investments in HAV to pay off through tourism market alone.
However, according to the company, the airship is also well suited for regular transportation on regional routes. The logic is sound: with barely any noise and emission footprints, as well as an ability to land anywhere, it could compete not only with aircraft but land-based transportation too, by connecting city centers directly. The airship may have a comparatively slow speed, but it can fly directly above traffic, and not be confined to airports.
This idea was tried in the 1930s, but proved difficult due to the immense danger it posed – any gust of wind could send the descending airship into nearby buildings. And while modern navigation and control methods could mitigate the problem, it would require a lot of work, time and investment to prove that it is safe.
There are other problems, too. At 91 meters (almost 300 feet), the Airlander 10 prototype was arguably the world’s largest aircraft before it crashed in 2017, overshadowing the length of Antonov An-225 Mriya (84 meters / 276 feet). Despite that, its cabin was comparable in size to a regional jet, and the cargo capacity reached just 10 tons – on par with the Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter. In January 2020, the company announced that the production version is going to be 5% longer, which does not really add up to that much.
The company claims that the Airlander 10 will still be able to transport up to 100 people, which seems to follow a formula of ‘100 kilograms per passenger’ which is employed by many aviation start-ups. The formula may work well as an approximation, but there are questions to be answered. It does not consider features that are paramount for a successful service – conditioning systems, safety equipment, toilets, and much more. Another estimate, which puts the airship’s passenger count at 50, seems much more realistic.
All this means that, despite being the largest object in the skies, Airlander 10 is very small. It would have to grow substantially larger in order to function as a viable transport option – the most sought-after and lucrative market of mainline jets starts at approximately 150 passengers, three times more than the Airlander could carry. It is fair to say that the airship service would probably not function the same way modern passenger aviation does, but it would most likely be expected to do that, at least in its initial stages.
The mass economy would also be at play. Inter-city air travel, despite limitations imposed by airports, is a seat-hungry affair. Many airlines employ the largest wide-body aircraft to ferry people on short but popular distances; if airships want to make at least a dent in that market, they have to get bigger.
Which brings us to HAV’s promises. Despite not yet having a stable production facility, the company expects to introduce the first serially-made Airlander 10 in 2025. The Airlander 50 would come no earlier than 2033.
There is a large gap between them. It is highly unlikely the Airlander 10 would be popular as either a passenger or cargo transport, which means that it has little chance to be commercially successful for HAV. Until the introduction of the Airlander 50 the company would likely remain in the so-called technology ‘valley of death’ – a nastier and more dangerous version of the chasm that applies to companies that were able to attract capital to start small-scale production, but have not made it big yet, and have not started generating profit.
HAV is going to have difficulties climbing out of that valley. It carries a double burden: not only proving that the company can be profitable, but that the idea of 21st century airships is sound.
Nevertheless, if all goes well, the Airlander 50 will kick-start the renaissance. But its sibling is an important step in that process, even if we have to curb our expectations of what it can do.
This article was first published on June 20, 2021.