Hybrid airships proposed for transporting cargo to remote areas and mine sites

Airlander 50 hybrid airship transporting mining equipment Artist impression © Hybrid Air Vehicles
Airlander 50 hybrid airship transporting mining equipment. Artist impression © Hybrid Air Vehicles

23 August 2016 © David Eyre

Hybrid airships are being proposed for transporting cargo to remote areas, such as mine sites, and may eventually be seen in Western Australia’s skies.

Benefits

Hybrid airships are are ideal for operating in remotes areas because they need very little supporting infrastructure – they can land anywhere with a flat landing area.

Benefits for resources projects are that no roads or railways need to be constructed prior to the start of a project.

Aeroplanes and helicopters are fast, but expensive to operate. Airships carry cargo for a one-tenth of the cost per tonne of helicopters, as well as having longer endurance and better cargo-carrying capacity than virtually any other flying vehicle.

Trains, trucks and ships can carry bigger cargo loads, but are slow and need supporting infrastructure (railways, roads or ports).

Hybrid airships are also more environmentally-friendly, producing less noise, less pollution, with a lower carbon footprint.

What are hybrid airships?

Hybrid airships are a new class of aircraft that use a combination of buoyant lift (lighter-than-air) from helium, aerodynamic lift from the shaped hull, and vectored thrust lift from engines that rotate and can direct their thrust in multiple directions.

Two companies are vying to win customers, and both have flown technology demonstrators and/or prototypes.

Both were competitors for a $500 million US Army contract to develop a Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) for intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance. The contract was won by Hybrid Air Vehicles, teamed with Northrop Grumman, beating a competing bid from Lockheed-Martin. However, the LEMV project was cancelled in February 2013.

Hybrid Air Vehicles designed, developed and manufactured the HAV 304 aircraft for the LEMV project, with Northrop Grumman as the prime contractor. The HAV 304 first flew on 7 August 2012. When the US Army cancelled the project in 2013, HAV purchased the HAV304 and converted in for civilian use as the Airlander 10. The Airlander 10 (which carries a 10 Tonne payload) first flew on 17 August 2016. This is currently the longest aircraft in the world (92 metres), capable of staying airborne for 5 days, with cruise speed of 80 knots (148 km/h), and powered by four 325hp 4-litre V8 direct injection turbocharged diesel engines. HAV is also proposing a larger Airlander 50, with a 50-Tonne payload. HAV states that 60% of lift comes from the helium, with the other 40% from aerodynamic lift, with vectored thrust from the engines contributing plus or minus 25%.

Lockheed Martin (USA) plans to have three hybrid airship variants in service by 2019; one that can lift 20 tonnes, another that lifts 90-tonnes and a massive version will carry 500 tonnes. The company says its 20 tonne version, which costs $US40 million ($52.5 million), cruises at 110km/h and is capable of flying around the world on a tank of fuel, although it would take a month. 80% of the lift on its hybrid airship comes from the buoyant lift produced by its helium and the other 20% from the aerodynamic shape, or from vectored thrust when taking off or landing. The company flew their technology demonstrator, the P-791, on 31 January 2006.

David Eyre

President, Aviation Association of WA Inc

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