A new generation of airships is taking to the skies
3:43 AM EDT, Fri October 13, 2023
Airships once ruled the skies -- and now, a century after their golden age, the floating giants are making a comeback. Cloudline is a South African startup building autonomous mini airships designed for deliveries, and aerial monitoring and inspection. The 18-meter (60-foot) long blimps can carry up to 40 kilograms (88 pounds) and are powered by solar panels, with a flight range of up to 400 kilometers (249 miles). Look through the rest of the gallery to learn more about the new generation of airships soaring into the future.
Cloudline is rolling out its airships across sub-Saharan Africa. It is partnering with the UN's World Food Programme for emergency communications in Mozambique, and in Namibia it is working with UNICEF to provide medical supplies to remote clinics.
Flying Whales, a company based in France and Canada, is planning to build a 656-foot (200-meter) long helium-lift and hybrid-electric propulsion airship, like the one pictured in this render, that can carry up to 60 tons of cargo.
Flying Whales says its airships could transport heavy, bulky cargo, such as wind turbines or construction materials, to remote locations that don't have roads, railways or airports connecting them to the global supply chain. This can help to reduce emissions and the environmental impact associated with building infrastructure, and it's a key motivator to bring back the old technology.
Airships have been around for over 150 years, and gained popularity in the early 1900s ferrying passengers and cargo across land and ocean. In this picture, US Navy airship Macon flies above New York City in 1933. However, as airplanes became faster and more advanced, airships began to fall out of favor.
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Airships at this time had a terrible track record for safety, with many crashing in storms or bursting into flames. The British R101 airship, pictured here at its hangar at Cardington in southern England, was destroyed in an accident in 1930, killing 48 passengers and crew members. Seven years later, the Hindenburg Disaster killed 36 people. Airship use was already in decline, but the tragedy officially ended of the golden age of airships.
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For the past 90 years, most of the airships floating across the skies have been advertising vessels -- like the Goodyear Blimp, pictured here in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2022.
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Airships have low-emissions and minimal impact on landscapes because they don't require infrastructure on the ground, which is why companies like UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) are eager to bring them back. HAV is developing a hybrid aircraft that uses helium lifting gas in an inflatable hull, combined with airplane technology for thrust. The Airlander 10, pictured here at Cardington Airfield, took its first flight in 2016.
Courtesy Darren Harbar/Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd
Airlander 10 is expected to enter service in 2026, carrying passengers on short-haul routes, says Tom Grundy, CEO of HAV. He adds that it's a "sensible step" to scaling up for production of its second vessel, the Airlander 50, capable of carrying up to 60 tons of cargo.
Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd
HAV expects this larger cargo aircraft to be in service by the early 2030s, and says it could help service remote areas, like the one pictured in this render. HAV is already working with the Scottish Government and Highlands and Islands Airports to explore how the Airlander 50 could provide a logistics solution for rural regions in Scotland.
Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd
Another company working on airships is Lighter Than Air (LTA) Research. The company -- established by billionaire Google co-founder Sergey Brin -- is building a 400-foot airship, called Pathfinder 1, pictured here in its hangar at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California.
LTA Research is training pilots on an advanced flight simulator, pictured here. After the team finish conducting ground tests, LTA Research plans to fly the Pathfinder 1 in San Francisco's South Bay later this year.
While most modern airship companies use helium as a lifting gas, others, such as H2 Clipper (whose airship is pictured in this render), are exploring hydrogen. Hydrogen is cheaper, has more lifting power, and can be a renewable element, whereas helium is expensive and could run out.
One of the key challenges of using hydrogen is managing its flammability. Companies like H2 Clipper (pictured in this render) are using modern technology and materials to try to make the lifting gas safer.
But, those opting for helium say that the volume needed for airships is minimal compared to the supply: for example, Flying Whales says one of its airships (pictured in this render) would use around 0.1% of annual helium production. The company, which raised €122 million ($130 million) in funding last year, is now focused on building its prototype, with its first test flight anticipated in 2025.