back to article First rigid airship since the Hindenburg cleared for outdoor flight trials

Good news for airship fanciers this week, as it appears that the world's first rigid airship since the 1930s will soon take to the skies for flight trials: and better still, this ship has a new piece of technology which could actually change the existing landscape and permit the leviathans of the skies to return. Rigid ships …

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  1. returnmyjedi

    Good to see that Miriam Margolyes is forging a career away from acting.

    1. Alan Bourke

      titter

      snort.

      1. Anonymous Custard Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: titter

        I was more wondering if this was a more sedate remake/reboot/sequel to Con-Air?

        Con-Airship perhaps?

    2. Ledswinger Silver badge

      Something about that picture makes me think of Ghostbusters.

      For the next photo shoot boys, stand the short one on a box, get his hair cut, and look serious.

      1. Frumious Bandersnatch Silver badge

        re: Something about that picture makes me think of Ghostbusters

        My first thought (based on age, but definitely not the smiling) was Solyaris. Such a motley crew is the antithesis of Hollywood's "Right Stuff" view of advanced aviation, and rightly so.

      2. Greg J Preece

        Something about that picture makes me think of Ghostbusters.

        For the next photo shoot boys, stand the short one on a box, get his hair cut, and look serious.

        Does he not look a bit like Elliot Gould did in Friends?

    3. Roger Greenwood

      That is one mad scary boffin. I like him.

    4. Hollerith 1
      Thumb Down

      How witty

      And spoken like a true gentleman. There's nothing an elderly woman likes so much is a joke at the expense of her body size.

      1. Intractable Potsherd

        Re: How witty @Hollerith

        I think you may have missed the point of the joke. It refers not to the first picture in the article, but the second.

        In addition, Ms Margolys has shown total acceptance of, and comfort with, her body in interviews I have seen in the last twelve months.

  2. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    Back of the envelope calculation

    Looks like air at STP is only seven and a bit times heavier than helium. So compressing the helium to eight bar will make it sink; reasonably manageable I would have thought.

    Impressive bit of build there. I wonder if they're planning on launching a rocket plane?

    1. bitten

      Re: Back of the envelope calculation

      A good way to kill yourself was to pressurize a car tire to 10 bar and look at what happens when the tire explodes.

      1. Chris Miller

        Re: Back of the envelope calculation

        True, but aircraft tyres can be pressurised to 200 psi (13 bar), and rarely kill anyone - though you wouldn't want to be nearby if one lets go.

      2. DougS Silver badge

        Re: Back of the envelope calculation

        A bicycle tire is typically pressurized to 110-125 psi, which is right in the 8 bar range. They don't kill or even maim anyone when they blow up. Perhaps the difference is because a car tire is thick and has nasty stuff like steel belts in it, while the inner tube in a bike tire is not much more than a balloon made out of something that doesn't stretch as well as a normal balloon. Car tires are not built for 100+ psi, they're built for 35 psi. I'm sure they could make them able to handle 200 psi if they was a point to doing so, but that would add unnecessary expense and make for a very rough ride!

        Sounds like what COSH is doing is transferring helium from balloons (used during lift stage) to bicycle inner tubes (to reduce lift) With pressures in the 8 bar range I don't think we're going to need to worry about another Hindenburg because a few inner tubes give way inside a structure LINED WITH METAL. So long as they're durable enough such that one blowing up isn't going to cause the one next to it to blow up and start a giant chain reaction I think such fears are unfounded.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Back of the envelope calculation

          And when said inner tubes do explode, their only effect will be to make the the airship MORE buoyant.

          "May-day, May-day our COSH tanks have ruptured, we're crash-climbing into space!"

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: "Explode"

            When we say explode here, we really mean violently burst.

            The gas used for filling the tanks is Helium, which is inert. It is impossible for it to cause a chemical explosion or combustion of any kind.

            1. The Indomitable Gall

              Re: "Explode"

              "When we say explode here, we really mean violently burst."

              ...which is one of the dictionary definitions of "explode". Your point, caller?

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: "more buoyant"

            Unless the designers decided to include the obvious safety system of a simple vent valve?

          3. scrishton

            Re: Back of the envelope calculation

            ... In a very squeaky voice.

  3. ecofeco Silver badge

    Rigid Airships have a place

    Rigid airships have a place, but never as military transport unless well to the rear.

    I would love to see commercial passenger travel using these, but alas, it will probably be an expensive boutique operation. Translation: I won't be able to afford it.

    1. monkeyfish

      Re: Rigid Airships have a place

      I was thinking that, if it was made plush enough it could be an alternative to a cruse ship, albeit one I would actually like to travel on*. Plenty of places an airship could go that a cruse ship can't.

      *You could make the interior styling that of the 1930's, rather than plastic tat, and specify that the crew wear monocles and such. Give every passenger a pipe and smoking jacket on boarding, I say. What what?

      1. TRT Silver badge

        Re: Rigid Airships have a place

        Have you never seen Thunderbird 6? People getting popped off left, right and centre. Terrible business. And the decor!!!

      2. Fibbles

        Re: Rigid Airships have a place

        I love the idea of airship cruises. I don't see why they'd have to be a niche market though.

        The main disadvantage of a cruise on a traditional ship is that you're limitied to destinations on the coast or at the ends of rivers where they're still wide and deep enough to accommodate large hulls. Airships aren't restricted in such ways.

        Leisurely cruise to the heart of the Amazon anyone?

      3. thalass

        Re: Rigid Airships have a place

        Indeed. I would much rather a two and a half day voyage across the pacific in comfort than the current 15 hour sleep deprivation marathon. Never mind that the range stated on the Aeroscraft site is quite a bit short of the 6500nmi between Sydney and LA.

        Even a train-style cabin would be an improvement over cattle class.

    2. Ledswinger Silver badge

      Re: Rigid Airships have a place

      "I would love to see commercial passenger travel using these, but alas, it will probably be an expensive boutique operation. Translation: I won't be able to afford it."

      I suspect so. And I'd guess that the main cost problem will be the low productivity of the asset, caused by its slow speed. In the time this takes to get any reasonable distance, a conventional jet could have flow there and back twice including the turnarounds. Not only does that mean that the asset is less productive, but any crew will be similarly unproductive.

      I'd love to see airships come back, but I can't see that they have any real advantages in any role other than perhaps high altitude unmanned surveillance (and the Yanks seem to have taken a good look and decided that's better done with conventional drones). Other slow endurance tasks (like maritime patrol) are probably ruled out by the need to fly in very poor weather at low altitude (and for military transport, it's too slow to be used other than outside of combat zones, which makes it a slow, inflexible, single purpose piece of kit. I don't see this supplanting C130s and A400M ever.

      1. Don Jefe

        Re: Rigid Airships have a place

        Their main advantage is extremely stable, extremely heavy lifting duties with no improved airstrip necessary.

        Transporting equipment by helicopter sucks and is only done because there are no other options. Even purpose built heavy lifting helicopters like the Sky-Crane are highly unstable, have limited lift capacity (compared to an airship) and are very fuel inefficient. Helicopters also have significant load balancing challenges which put a big limitation on the shape of things that can be carried. Airships can compensate for uneven loads far, far better than a helicopter.

        1. PyLETS

          Re: Rigid Airships have a place

          An application where existing technology is expensive and difficult, is lifting the largest and highest wind turbines on top of towers for offshore wind generation. Putting the towers up and nacelle units on top is relatively easy, it's the turbine blades which are so large and capable of generating dangerous and destructive forces in tiny windspeeds during installation. Offshore wind generators tend to be much larger than onshore ones. The ship-based cranes currently used for this purpose can only work on very calm days, and if an airship could do this job more quickly or safely in even very slight wind this would increase the time window during which this work could be carried out.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Rigid Airships have a place

            I never thought of that problem. It seems like an interesting solution would be "flying bogies". One might be able to attach drone fans or (eg: quadcopters or similar) at certain places along the length of the blade to help maintain station and orientation while the crane (or skyhook) actually bears the weight.

        2. Ledswinger Silver badge

          Re: Rigid Airships have a place@ Don Jefe

          "Transporting equipment by helicopter sucks and is only done because there are no other options."

          Actually, its not done much at all except by the military, and the military do it because it is fast, doesn't require any landing strip, and when it does land it can do so on a pocket handkerchief, a small deck area, or a bit of road. And they aren't carrying 250 tonnes, they're carrying a few troops, or a few tonnes of cargo. Being able to despatch three main battle tanks via airship doesn't get you much benefit in Iraq or Afghan.

          Airships with large capacity will be slow, they will require very large cleared areas for landing, and I'm not convinced that they will be much more stable than a chopper when the airship has a cross sectional area not far off the sail area of the Cutty Sark. Think about 250 tonne point to point loads, and as I see it there simply isn't the volume of traffic in the civil sector - how many nuclear power station reactors or the like are there to transport?

          1. Don Jefe
            Happy

            Re: Rigid Airships have a place@ Don Jefe - Helicopter Delivery

            Helicopters are used for moving heavy or large things more than you might think. In the last five years we've been the engineering leads on three jobs where large equipment was flown in. All three were at a sprawling factory that was receiving new equipment from overseas that couldn't fit through the facilities and their positioning wasn't optional as they performed inline processes that couldn't be rerouted without building an entirely new factory.

            The equipment was sent by barge to the edge of the facility then lifted into their new homes in large sections. It was nerve wracking to say the least as well as extremely complicated. We had to cut big sections of roof off, build six electrically isolated guy towers and clean. The cleaning alone took over a week as the downdraft from the rotors, trapped in a big metal box (the factory) would turn anything loose into a ricocheting projectile with an unlimited power supply (as long as the helicopter was there anyway).

            Sorry, neat (to me) but boring story over. My point was that we had to schedule the delivery of the components nine months in advance. The company that provides the lift service is that backed up. There are several in the US that do it but these guys had the helicopter we needed. It is a niche industry, but they are always busy. It is also very expensive, huge liabilities are involved and it is very complicated. If airships existed for the work they would be cheaper, less dangerous, and could completely alter the manufacturing landscape as many, many decisions are made based solely on getting equipment into a facility.

            1. TheOtherHobbes

              Re: Rigid Airships have a place@ Don Jefe - Helicopter Delivery

              Upvoted for information over opinionation.

              I suspect there are a lot of other potential markets, including intermediate speed deliveries.

              Currently surface takes months and is usually 'If we lose it, tough.'

              Air takes a week or less,

              Secure guaranteed delivery with the low cost of surface but the security of tracked air would be very interesting, even if takes 2-3 weeks.

            2. The Indomitable Gall

              @Don Jefe Re: Rigid Airships have a place

              I don't think an airship's a good option for precision lifting due to its poor stability in even slightly breezy conditions. Airships are really only any good for the haulage side of things, where they're competing with your barges, not the helicopters.

              Most industrial installations need large water supplies, so barges are normally reliable for plant & materials delivery. There's a reason airships are being touted for very specific purposes, such as oil drilling -- most other uses are always going to be close to existing infrastructure.

              1. Drew 11

                Re: @Don Jefe Rigid Airships have a place

                "I don't think an airship's a good option for precision lifting due to its poor stability in even slightly breezy conditions."

                Ah, but with an airship, you could tether it to the ground with 3 cables, increase the airship lift to take up the slack, then you pretty much have a giant tripod sitting over the target area. Then you can just alter the length of those cables to "winch down" the load to the exact spot you want it. Highly stable.

      2. Robert Helpmann?? Silver badge
        Childcatcher

        Re: Rigid Airships have a place

        "I would love to see commercial passenger travel using these, but alas, it will probably be an expensive boutique operation. Translation: I won't be able to afford it."

        I suspect so. And I'd guess that the main cost problem will be the low productivity of the asset, caused by its slow speed.

        Hmm.. How about turning this into an asset? Perhaps setting up one of these creatures in the same fashion as a cruise ship would work. On the plus side, ports of call could be inland. On the minus: "Man overboard!" would be a bit more serious.

        1. Anomalous Cowturd
          Happy

          @Robert Re: Man overboard.

          At least you know exactly where to look for the body.

          Straight down...

      3. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

        Re: Rigid Airships have a place

        "...I suspect so. And I'd guess that the main cost problem will be the low productivity of the asset, caused by its slow speed. In the time this takes to get any reasonable distance, a conventional jet could have flow there and back twice including the turnarounds. Not only does that mean that the asset is less productive..."

        Um.. productivity isn't just a matter of comparing ANY item with the fastest of it's type. The question is whether the craft can find a market.

        Interestingly, speed across the Atlantic is not a simple process of cutting minutes off to be better. You have to consider the entire experience. For instance, the big liners could have gone considerably faster if designed to do so, but that would have meant leaving the UK at an inconvenient time, or arriving in the States at an inconvenient time. They took 4 days, leaving and arriving in the daytime. To really clean up they would have had to do it in 3 days, because nobody wanted to take 3 1/2 and arrive at 2AM.

        It looks to me as if an airship could cross in 24 hours. That's a good marketable time. At the moment you take a day to travel anyway, with what getting to and from the airports. Having a day of luxury at the beginning and end of a trip is a saleable commodity...and no jet lag...

    3. Jess

      it will probably be an expensive boutique operation.

      Would it?

      Traveling time would go up by a factor of 5, I guess. But space would not be an issue. You'd be able to walk around or sleep. England to Europe would be fine.

      Fuel efficiency would be in its favor. If the top surface were solar cells, you could have a daylight only ship with minimal fuel costs.

      The question is whether the cost of the ships will be low enough to make travel cheaper. (Crew costs will go up by most of the factor of 5) How long will they last compared to a jet? What are the maintenance costs?

      1. Steve 13

        Re: it will probably be an expensive boutique operation.

        Surely the point wouldn't be to get from A to B, it would be a cruise in the same way that you cruise on an ocean liner. You stop at multiple point and eventually return to your destination.

        Nobody points out that cruise ships must fail due to the slow nature of the journey, because the point isn't the speed, but the journey itself.

        1. Boothy

          Re: it will probably be an expensive boutique operation.

          I could see smaller ones being used to replace viewing flights by helicopters, assuming the price can be competitive of course, or even longer trips.

          Image doing a run through the Grand Canyon, or a photo safari in Africa (this one could last days if the ship was big enough for the supplies)..

          Helicopter =

          * Noisy (have to speak via a headset)

          * Cramped seats wearing a harness.

          * Massive vibrations.

          * No facilities (have to land somewhere).

          Airship =

          * Quiet, can talk at a normal levels.

          * Free to get up an move around, possibly with proper viewing galleries, or even external balconies.

          * Stable platform

          * Could have things like a restaurant, toilets on board etc.

          * Could stay in the air for days as long as your not burning fuel quickly, i.e. a leisurely pace to view, rather than rushing from A to B.

          Even if it was expensive, I can imagine there would be a lot of rich people in the world that would like to float effortlessly above the African savannah for a few days irrespective of price.

        2. Kubla Cant Silver badge

          Re: it will probably be an expensive boutique operation.

          Nobody points out that cruise ships must fail due to the slow nature of the journey, because the point isn't the speed, but the journey itself.

          Cruise ships seem to contain a vast amount of stuff* to keep the passengers amused between stops. This is easier for ships because they're very, very big. It also suggests that the journey itself is less alluring than you might think.

          *Water slides, gourmet meals, lectures, adultery... you can probably tell I've never actually been on a cruise.

          1. Boothy

            Re: it will probably be an expensive boutique operation.

            @ Kubla Cant

            Most current (water) cruse ships tend to be about where you are going to, and keep you entertained on route.

            i.e. a couple of nights in location A, then sail across an empty sea to get to location B for another night or two etc.

            River cruses tend to be different, as you have more to look at, and smaller boats with less on them.

            Airship cruses are more likely to be over land, so plenty to look at during the day, and the routes would most likely be plotted to make sure the most interesting stuff was flown past/over on route to the really interesting places. So less need for things like Water slides etc.

            Although I did just think, how cool would it be to have a roof top pool, especially if it had the horizon type pool edge!

      2. Ledswinger Silver badge

        Re: it will probably be an expensive @ Jess

        "Traveling time would go up by a factor of 5, I guess. But space would not be an issue. You'd be able to walk around or sleep. England to Europe would be fine."

        You must be American. I can already catch a train to Europe from the UK, on which I can walk around, and it runs at up to twice the speed of an airship. If I want to waste a few hours I could catch a ferry, and if I want to get there quick then jet is the answer.

        Cost of the airship is quoted by the company as around $55m dollars for the 250 tonne lifter. That's around what the airlines pay for a 737 with a 20 tonne cargo capacity. Obviously if you want to carry 250 tonne loads to runway free locations, there's only one choice - but if you are carrying normal air cargo then the 737 (or more likely a cheaper second hand 757 refitted) beats it hands down because most people aren't transporting 250 tonnes at a pop, most people live near enough an airport, and most people don't want to wait for an extra day for their air mail or air cargo to be delivered.

        1. Boothy

          Re: it will probably be an expensive @ Jess

          @ Ledswinger

          I think your comparing with the wrong type of transport. I doubt that an airship would (or could as you state) compete with aircraft, for air freight as the service is different. Current air freight is usually about speed rather than cost.

          I think they would be more likely to compete with ocean going freight, As they would be faster, and could pick up and deliver closer to the door. So no need to ship to/from a sea port first. Also as this is more of a bulk service, the 250 tonne would likely easily be filled.

          This could become an intermediate freight option (for medium to long haul). At the moment you have high cost, but fast air freight, or low cost, but slow cargo ships. An airship would probably sit in-between the two.

          Also if the source location (e.g factory) and target location (e.g. local distribution warehouse) had enough space for one of these to land. You could ship 250 tonnes direct, point-to-point. i.e. 250 tonnes of TVs direct from the manufactures in Asia, straight to the local distribution warehouse of a UK retailer.

          1. Ledswinger Silver badge

            Re: it will probably be an expensive @ Boothy

            "I think they would be more likely to compete with ocean going freight, "

            I doubt it. Do the maths on the latest (and biggest) container ships, and you'll find you're going to need a lot of airships to replace a single ship. If we "go large" with the Maersk Triple E ships under construction, they carry 18,000 TEU, with a probable cargo weight of 180,000 tonnes. That's 720 of these airships, with a highly skilled crew of at least four or more (unless you land for crew changes). Obviously the airships travel at five times the speed of a ship on routes potentially half as long, but the Maersk Triple E has a crew of only 22. You point out that this would only be for intermediate loads, but where are they?

            The reason many goods travel by sea is because the product cycles aren't fast enough nor the value high enough to permit air travel. And airships won't be materially cheaper. The challenge to sea borne containers is actually proposals to revamp the rail links across Asia, which exist but are slow and unreliable - but there's no will to do that, even though the time savings would be as great as your airship proposal, and the costs a lot lower. I doubt there's much mid merit cargo desperate for airship speeds - and in fact, if that's a problem, you move production closer to demand, rather than saving money moving where labour's free, and then paying loads to transport it back.

            You posit point to point travel, but that's not going to happen for routine loads. Look at air traffic management systems, look at the volume of traffic carried by road - can you really see airships landing at you local Curry's? I can't.

            1. Don Jefe
              Happy

              Re: it will probably be an expensive @ Boothy

              Ocean freight also has the huge advantage of being shipped inside its own rent and tariff free warehouse. Planes, trains and trucks generally have their profit built into transporting the cargo quickly then (ideally) making the return journey with new freight.

              Ships on the other hand are often parked offshore, sometimes for months with just a skeleton crew. It is cheaper than paying the insanely artificial rates at on shore commodities warehouses or port side storage fees with all the longshoreman 'value added' charges and it frees space at the port it came from. Everybody is happy. If it can return loaded that's just a bonus, but the 'medium' size vessels that carry the majority of freight turn a profit on a one way trip.

              You could never scale a similar scenario with airships. The costs of them sitting unused are simply too great and I don't think any nation would be comfortable with a fleet of airships hovering constantly just inside International Waters :)

              The unknown component in this entire discussion is maintenance. There are no reliable projections or estimates on what a modern airship will cost to keep flying over a long period. Ships last a long, long, long time, spare parts are readily available, maintenance has very low levels of precision and they retain significant value even after removal from service as salvage, floating warehouses, and strategic blocking of shipping lanes, ports and coastlines in an invasion. In a worst case scenario you can still stick large guns or missile batteries on them too. Can't really do any of that with an airship.

            2. Faster Better Greener

              Re: it will probably be an expensive @ Boothy

              Container trains from China to Germany are already running. Serious cash is being invested in upgrading the infrastructure too. DB Schenker is coordinating.

          2. Richard Gadsden

            Re: it will probably be an expensive @ Jess

            I doubt that specific route will be a big deal; there's a freight route by rail from China to western Europe - takes 11-14 days for container freight (compared to 9 for passenger rail or 45 or so by sea). That's probably similar speed-wise to airships and certainly cheaper.

            Several additional routes across Asia are being opened up at the moment (including ones that don't go through Russia - Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran-Turkey).

            Trans-Pacific is the route that might be interesting for airships.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: it will probably be an expensive @ Jess

          Quote: ".... You'd be able to walk around or sleep. England to Europe would be fine."

          <Pedant mode>

          If your in England, your already in Europe.

          <Pedant mode/>

          1. Ledswinger Silver badge

            Re: it will probably be an expensive @ Jess

            "<Pedant mode>

            If your in England, your already in Europe.

            <Pedant mode/>"

            Speak for yourself....

            (And do watch your spelling when in pedant mode, it does detract!)

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: it will probably be an expensive @ Jess

              @ Ledswinger

              Europe is a geographical location, it's not like there is an option regarding being in it or not. Don't want to be in Europe, then you'll have to physically leave the continent. Not much chance of getting England to do that (v large tug boat required).

              Now if you were talking about the EU, then that's another story....

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