LTA Research, a startup backed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, is readying the first flight test of the new generation airship it is developing.
LTA’s first prototype, called Pathfinder 1, was lifted for the first time at Moffett Field, California, on November 8, 2023, in preparation for its upcoming testing programe.
Initially the first flights will be tethered, with the Pathfinder moving just a few meters off the ground. Later on it is planned that the airship with conduct some flight testing over the waters of San Francisco Bay.
In September 2023, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a special airworthiness certificate for a period of one year, until September 1, 2024.
LTA Research is one of a handful of companies currently revisiting the airship concept, which fell out of favor in the 1930s, as an energy efficient and sustainable form of air transport.
The new generation of airship developers, which in addition to LTA includes companies such as Flying Whales in France, and Hybrid Air Vehicles in the United Kingdom, take advantage of new materials and technologies to make airship travel attractive again.
LTA, for example, uses fly-by-wire controls, Lidar sensors and electric motors developed by Pipistrel, one of the pioneering firms in electric aviation (at first these will be powered by diesel generators, but the firm plans to transition to fuel cell or batteries at a later stage).
Buoyancy is provided by 13 self-contained bags filled with helium, an inert, non-flammable gas. These are, in turn, contained by a structural “rib cage” made of 3,000 titanium tubes and 10,000 carbon fiber-reinforced polymer tubes.
Pathfinder 1 will be able to lift up to four tons of cargo, but LTA Research is already working on a larger Pathfinder 3 capable of carrying larger payloads.
Transporting cargo and emergency support in parts of the world with limited ground infrastructure are expected to be among the first missions the Pathfinder family of airships will fulfill, although there may be other commercial uses, such as passenger transportation, later on.