Airships, the unexpected new yet old eco-friendly technology

Airlander 10 first flight (source: Hybrid Air Vehicles media page)

Spanish regional airline Air Nostrum was announced on June 15th 2022 as the launch customer of Hybrid Air Vehicles’ Airlander 10 airship, with a reservation for 10 aircraft. The Airlander 10 is a lighter than air vehicle that obtains additional lift thanks to its design which functions as a lifting body. The current model is powered by Diesel engines, but, electric propulsion is proposed.

So, could airships make a comeback as a viable mode of transport?

There are almost no operating airships in the world today. The most well-known airship today, the “Goodyear Blimp”, is an oddity. Goodyear operates a fleet of only three, and their manufacturer (Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik) in total has produced only seven. While airships don’t frequently make the news, there’s still a variety of manufacturers out there working on new designs. What makes the Air Nostrum deal somewhat surprising is that the bulk of the designs today don’t focus on passengers but on cargo. While airships offer good range, they are slow, which isn’t ideal for passenger transport, especially if it has to compete with conventional aircraft or high-speed rail. Proposed passenger routes are generally short for that reason. However, for cargo, airships may offer interesting opportunities. Not all cargo needs to move fast, and if it doesn’t matter too much if it takes one hour or eight hours to move a piece of freight, then an airship might be a reasonable solution. Airships may also be able to transport cargo that’s quite simply too big to fit inside of a conventional cargo aircraft, or too heavy to lift by helicopter. Airships may also be able to move heavy cargo into areas with relatively limited infrastructure. This concept isn’t new but no recent airship projects have managed to become a success.

However, with there being an increased need to reduce emissions, the cost of fuel rising and no new civilian heavy lift cargo aircraft being manufactured, the time for cargo airships could be right. Hybrid Air Vehicles does also imagine a cargo role for their Airlander range. The current model 10 could carry 10 tons of cargo, but considerably bigger models (dubbed the 50 and 200, being able to carry – you guessed it – 50 and 200 tons of cargo respectively) are proposed.

Much bolder are the ambitions of existing airship manufacturer Aeros. Having built a range of smaller airships already, and a military cargo prototype called the Dragon Dream, the company has now set its sights on larger models, the ML866 with a 66 tons capacity and the ML868 with a 250 tons capacity. Newcomer LTA Research is also working to build a giant cargo airship. Currently, they’re building the Pathfinder 3 which should be able to carry 96 tons of cargo. The primary use case envisioned by LTA Research is to deliver supplies to areas affected by natural disasters. A smaller model, the Pathfinder 1, is expected to fly in 2023. Other players include UK-based Varialift which proposes the VRH50 and VRH250 cargo airships with 50 and 250 tons of cargo capacity respectively, the Chinese airship manufacturer Vantage Airship which proposes the CA-60T and CA-200T with 60 and 200 tons of cargo capacity respectively and US-based Ohio Airships which proposes the Dynalifter Super Freighter.

But there’s good reason to be cautious here. Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin managed to secure an order for 12 of cargo airships it had to developed, however to this day no airships have been delivered and the project looks to have fizzled out. And while the customer Straightline Aviation points at it being an eco-friendly solution, they also point at oil and gas exploration as a potential use case which kind of makes the eco-friendly aspect of the airship a moot point. Another aerospace giant, Boeing, also worked to develop a cargo airship and they too dropped those plans.

In the end, it seems likely that airships will never be a prominent mode of transportation that will make a real impact on reducing harmful emissions, mostly because they’re only useful in certain niche roles. But, with several projects underway to develop new eco-friendly airships, perhaps we can hope that at least some of them will see success, if anything just because they’re a great sight to see.