There have been ups and downs in the process that some call ‘the airship renaissance’. A few decades ago, dozens of companies – including giants like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman – were promising the return of the airship with their own projects to build new, big, highly advanced and incredibly efficient lighter-than-air aircraft.
Airlander 10, built by Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), was the posterchild of this renaissance. One of the candidates for the biggest aircraft in the world, it first flew in 2013 and became proof that modern airships work.
Then, in 2017, it crashed and was destroyed. HAV announced that it would not repair the prototype and would focus on building new and improved versions instead.
One of the reasons for this approach was a change in the company’s focus. The Airlander was originally intended to be used by the military for tasks including surveillance and communication. It was somewhat ill-suited for the role of a prototype of a civilian aircraft.
According to Mike Durham, chief technical officer of HAV and one of the key people behind the Airlander 10, the company’s airships will be built with four key roles in mind: passenger transportation, cargo transportation, luxury travel, and surveillance. All mass-produced Airlanders – now expected to start operating in 2026 – will be configurable to fit one of these roles, says Durham.
On June 15, 2022, HAV announced the launch customer for the Airlander 10: Air Nostrum, a Spanish regional airline which ordered ten Airlander 10s in a passenger configuration.
“One of the things we have been looking at is true city center to city center passenger experience,” says Durham. “And one of the things we think we offer with Airlander is operating closer to the city center. We don’t need to be at a fixed airfield, which typically is many, many, many miles away from the center. We can operate off water, in many cities that are based on bays or river estuaries.”
He continues: “Count the time it takes from standing in the dead center of the city, to getting on a taxi or a bus, going to the airport, queuing and going through security, then waiting for a while until you are ready to be loaded into the aircraft. And then yes, the flight bit of an airplane journey is quick. But there is a lot of time burned on each end of it. And what we are looking to do is to simplify that process.”
In addition, Airlander 10 – while slower than a regular airplane – is expected to be more comfortable. No noise or vibration, “a lounge type of experience”, as Durham calls it.
“We’ve got the status quo: everybody flies airplanes, they go down an aluminum walkway tube, and they get through the front [of the aircraft], and they do their seat belts, and they sit there with their knees wedged up against their chests. And that’s the norm. But being that adventurous is not in the human nature. Flying in such a way is not a natural phenomenon.”
In this regard, Airlander 10 is more comparable to a train or a ferry, according to Durham. And with the carbon footprint of a ferry, it still offers significantly higher speeds, being able to fly above ground and above water.
“We’re not trying to make ferries and trains and airplanes redundant. If we look at the expansion that is expected in the marketplace, we see that we can take a relatively small percentage of that and create a viable business,” he says.
Rooftop-to-rooftop freight transport
However, when it comes to cargo transportation, comfort loses its importance. Cost becomes more important for freight operators, with many of them – both big and small – operating cheaper, older aircraft.
“The freight industry at the moment tends to be a bit focused around old [Boeing] 737s and the like. But we do offer a significant cost saving in terms of the operating cost of the aircraft. The cost per ton-kilometer for Airlander is significantly lower than for an airplane. And I think it will just come down to operating economics at the end of the day,” Durham explains.
“But we have got to get over this fear of the unusual first. This is why the Air Nostrum order is very important. Certainly, people understand how this product can work in a commercial marketplace.”
The city center to city center idea seems similar to another emerging type of transportation: the electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft (eVTOLs). Recently, several companies announced they were purchasing eVTOLs for the so-called last mile transportation of both passengers and cargo, delivering them from hubs to city centers and other destinations.
“I don’t think we are geared towards this piece [of the market],” says Durham. “The problem is, our aircraft is large. Doing close formation flying to the top of a building in the middle of a city is not necessarily in our sweet spot. So I think we play well with the top market. We offer more of a hub-to-hub or distribution center to distribution center type of capability, being able to deliver 10 or 12 tons of freight into a distribution center and then have an eVTOL aircraft go onward.”
However, operating in this market poses a challenge. The cargo capacity of Airlander 10 is on par with small regional airplanes, while most cargo companies require significantly larger capacities. Various cargo versions of the Boeing 737 carry more than 20 tons of freight, while for wide-body freighters, such as Boeing 767 or Airbus A330, this number is more than three times higher.
“That almost puts us in a slightly niche marketplace. Full-blown freight operations, they’re typically focused on many tens of tons. So, Airlander 10 doesn’t have a huge economic benefit when competing against old 737s that had their wings flown off of them for many, many years. It’s a little bit more challenging for the Airlander 10.”
“And this is why our roadmap to the future is to go to bigger versions of Airlanders. We have launched the Airlander 50 program, we are developing requirements and specification for that. And one of the benefits of lighter-than-air or hybrid marketplace is, if I make the aircraft twice the length, it typically gets eight times the lift capacity. Fuel burn only goes up by a factor of four, but volume goes up by a factor of eight. Helium is holding a lot of the weight up.”
Durham says that HAV’s research led to the conclusion that the Airlander 10, with its relatively small capacity and size, is the right place to start. However, it is going to be immediately followed up by the Airlander 50, which will predominantly be a freighter while retaining the possibility to fulfill passenger and military roles.
A step above drones
HAV’s step into civilian markets followed the US military losing interest in airships. One of often-cited reasons for that was the rise of heavier-than-air unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs): long-endurance drones could perform many of the tasks that airships were being developed for.
However, Durham says that HAV still retains high hopes for the Airlander’s role in this market.
“We are conducting a study with the NPS [Naval Postgraduate School], a US Marine School in California. A lot of what we are doing with them is associated with freight transportation, but also with airborne surveillance. And there is no doubt that drones are becoming more and more capable, flying for days is now possible on some of them. But if you want four or five days, then really, it’s lighter than air that is going to give you the solution to that.”
He continues: “If you want to do pattern of life [surveillance], you need radars, listening equipment, multiple cameras, and so on. And that kind of our payload is well beyond most drone payloads. So, in many ways I characterize our aircraft as a flying truck. Will it replace every airplane every helicopter or every drone out there? No. But it is an addition to their fleets and an addition to their capabilities.”
Breaking into the market
However, if Airlander 10 manages to fill all its expected roles, this will require a significant breakthrough. The effectiveness of airships has to be demonstrated before companies and institutions decide that investing in the new platform is worth the risk.
Achieving that first step is not easy, as Durham admits.
“Finding businesses that have that enthusiasm to slightly go out on a limb and adopt a new technology…They are hard to find.”
But he also thinks that the first breakthrough has already happened.
“I think we actually made that step with our announcement about the Air Nostrum deal. And we have others in the pipeline. I kind of feel that the marketplace is starting to accept that we have a valid product.
“The Air Nostrum deal has been many months in the making. We did a lot of work between the two businesses, they did a lot of study work on their operating costs. I feel that that was the key thing. We are gaining credibility with some customers. And from there, the investment potential improves dramatically. So, I’m pretty comfortable that in the next few months I am going to start working very, very hard for my living.”