A new golden age for airships?

Apr 01, 2016, 12:25 PM EDT
An earlier model of a Lockheed hybrid airship.
(Source: lazzo51/flickr)

It has been almost 80 years since the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg airship blew up, but the world is now on the cusp of another golden age for safer and improved airships. On Wednesday, Lockheed Martin sealed its first contract to sell up to 12 of its hybrid LMH-1 airships, valued at $480 million, to Straightline Aviation (SLA). The LMH-1 is part blimp, part helicopter, part cargo plane, and part hovercraft, and it is much more fuel efficient, environmentally friendly, and quieter than conventional aircraft. According to Bob Boyd, program manager for hybrid airships at Lockheed Martin, when the LMH-1 enters commercial service in about three years it will be a whole new class of aircraft.

The LMH-1’s innovative design avoids the problems that led to the Hindenburg’s demise. It is heavier than air, meaning that it doesn’t need mooring like a traditional blimp. Thus by using its own movable engines it can land on any unimproved surface, including mud, sand, snow, ice, and water. And for much of its buoyancy it uses helium -- an inert gas that won't ignite in a leak. Even puncturing the hull won’t cause deflation. “In fact even if you shoot holes in it, you probably won't notice anything for days and patching is a straightforward process,” said Grant Cool, chief operating officer of Hybrid Enterprises (the exclusive reseller of the LMH-1).

According to Mining.com,

The LMH-1 uses a fifth of the fuel of a helicopter (and a third of that of a jet aircraft) on a comparable basis and emits only 0.4kg per tonne mile CO2 compared to 1.2kg per tonne mile for jet aircraft. Keeping things simple was a main priority in the design process according to Boyd which keeps parts, maintenance and running costs low.

SLA's CEO Mike Kendrick said oil, gas, and mining are the "low hanging fruit," for the LMH-1 to start with, whether it's delivering cargo by air to the "soft sands" of the Middle East, or removing the need to build annual ice roads in northern Canada (which can cost $20 million a year to construct). He added, “You don't have to build ice roads ... and wait for the environmentalists to give you permission. You can just land on ice."

"There is a real need for this. It can cost up to $1 billion to put all the infrastructure in for an oil well," Kendrick noted. (For the same reasons, the LMH-1 would also lower cleanup costs at remote sites.) He claimed falling commodity prices have actually increased interest in the airships and their cost savings, and that his firm has four or five customers ready to try them out once they are available. 

And the LMH-1 could have many other uses. It could bring humanitarian relief during natural disasters (including being configured as "flying hospitals"), conduct search and rescue operations (including at sea), and monitor infrastructure. It also has major tourist potential, since its flight is low, slow, and quiet, and it can carry up to 19 passengers in “business-class style.”  (Plus, there is always the easy add-on of display advertising.)

The LHM-1 will face competition though. Its closest rival is the U.K.'s Airlander 10, which is the world’s largest aircraft. Unveiled on March 21, the lighter-than-air hybrid airship is capable of carrying 10 tons, and blueprints have already been drawn for a larger version that could carry five times as much.

For Lockheed, next on the drawing board is a 90 ton-payload hybrid airship to compete with jumbo jet cargo planes, followed by a 500 ton concept -- which would probably be the size of a sports stadium.

The sky’s no longer the limit of what can be done.