A U.S. Army mega aircraft – a hybrid of plane, helicopter, hovercraft and airship- is going civilian.
Designed by British design company Hybrid Air Vehicles for the U.S. military, this massive piece of next-gen tech can travel through the air at nearly 100 miles per hour.
At 302 feet, the Airlander 10 is bigger than a Boeing 747 and its new big brother in development will be bigger than a football field. Airlander 10 can carry 10 tons of equipment and the company says these uber-blimbs will be able to circumnavigate the globe twice in one trip without landing.
Designed to meet military standards, Airlander works in extreme weather conditions and doesn’t need a prepared landing zone. In fact, it can land on challenging surfaces like water, sand, snow and ice – making it an excellent option for delivering cargo to remote locations in tough conditions.
With humans on board, it can stay aloft for about five days, but when it is unmanned it can stay aloft for weeks on end.
In 2010, Hybrid Air Vehicles began working on this Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) project for the U.S. Army with team lead Northrop Grumman. The objective was to achieve a mega surveillance aircraft that could spend days in the air on a single mission. Potential uses for the vehicle included cargo transport, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
One reason the military was exploring airships is because they have the potential to carry far heavier payloads, like sensors and cameras, than some Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones. They can also loiter and hover persistently over a specific spot.
Before budget cuts waylaid the promising project in 2013, the LEMV (aka Airlander 10) underwent test flights.
HAV purchased the project back and plans to make it available for civilian applications.
It has already attracted interest from folks you might expect like oil and mining operations keen to find more efficient methods of transporting heavy cargo to remote corners of the world.
But the good news for folks is that they are considering making this military grade tech available for things like tourism - you could fly from Pole to Pole, hover over the Amazon rainforest or even spend days above Mayan ruins.
The project has recently been resuscitated with grants from the U.K. government and European Union, as well as other sources like a crowd funding campaign and private investors. And it has also attracted more unexpected interest – like Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer of Iron Maiden who has personally invested and hopes to fly it around the world.
How does it fly?
The uber blimp combines aspects of fixed wing aircraft and helicopters with what the company calls “lighter-than-air technology.”
It uses helium to get off the ground and its envelope contains 1.34 million cubic feet of helium. The envelope’s skin has been designed to withstand small arms fire and is made from a polymer composite of Kevlar, Mylar, and Vectran.
Helium provides about 40 percent of the lift. And there are a total of four propellers with turbocharged V8 engines that run on diesel. Two are positioned at the back and two in the front.
The Airlander leverages the fuel to help take off and land as well as to power the propellers.
The cockpit can comfortably fit two people including the pilot in the current model.
Traditional airships have a lot of drawbacks like limited payloads, poor performance in weather variations and require lots of ground crew. The Airlander 10 has been designed to overcome all these challenges.
Hybrid Air Vehicles says that Airlander 10 has a substantially lower carbon footprint than our current popular modes of air travel.
An even larger version of the mega airship – the Airlander 50 - is already in prototype.
Much of the tech in this version is the same - but this fella can carry a staggering 50 tons.
And get this – it is larger than a football field. Airlander 50 is 390 feet long, 196 feet wide, and 115 feet tall and can carry approximately 50 passengers who can take advantage of the vehicle’s all-round visibility.
The airship can sort of suck itself down to the ground. It has hovercraft type capabilities with pneumatic tubes on the underside of the two outer hulls. When the flow is reversed it helps provide more stability. In flight, the system retracts and reduces drag.
It has been designed with heavy lifting equipment and can provide supplies to remote and inaccessible corners of the world.
For responding to natural disasters or providing humanitarian support, the fact that the Airlanders do not need runways and can land anywhere is a huge advantage.
Flying by Airlander next year
Next year, you may catch a glimpse of Airlander in the skies or even take a ride on one.
HAV aims to produce about 40 Airlanders over the next four years and ultimately put hundreds of them in the air. The maiden voyage of a luxury passenger version of Airlander is already being promoted for next year.
Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.
Allison Barrie consults at the highest levels of defense, has travelled to more than 70 countries, is a lawyer with four postgraduate degrees and now the author of the new book "Future Weapons: Access Granted" covering invisible tanks through to thought-controlled fighter jets. You can click here for more information on FOX Firepower columnist and host Allison Barrie and you can follow her on Twitter @allison_barrie.