A big idea takes flight

Source: HM Government, www.greatbusiness.gov.uk

It’s bigger than a football field, making it the world’s largest aircraft (about 60 feet longer than an Airbus A380). It is a mixture of aeroplane, airship, helicopter and hovercraft. It’s greener and quieter than other air transport. Oh, and a larger version is already in prototype. And it’s all being designed and built in Bedfordshire.

The helium-filled Airlander is the creation of Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), a seven-year-old company that itself was born out of decades of British innovation and research in Lighter Than Air (LTA) craft.

HAV was able to make the step from initial prototype to the manufacture and test flight thanks to a 2010 contract from the US Department of Defence. Led by Northrop Grumman, the aim was to create a so-called Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) – a super-sized surveillance aircraft that had the capability of spending days in the air on a single mission.

The first test flight of the Airlander took place in August 2012. But in 2013, budget cuts led to the cancellation of the project. HAV bought it back from the DoD at effectively scrap value.

“We remain on very good terms with the US Department of Defence,” says HAV’s communications director Chris Daniels. “We continue to share data with them and we expect our dialogue to bear fruit in the future.”

So the Airlander came back to the UK, where it lives in a giant hangar in Cardington, Bedfordshire. It’s there because it’s is the only place in the UK that can house it, having been built for airship manufacture in 1915.

One hundred years ago, Bedfordshire was at the cutting edge of aviation. Now it is again. 

At present, Airlander 10 can carry up to ten tonnes and can stay airborne for up to five days. It is envisaged that Airlander 10 might be used for surveillance and communications, for filming, research and survey work.

However, there is (literally) a bigger picture. HAV’s aim is to transform and disrupt the cargo market by building a craft that will be able to carry 50 tonnes – the Airlander 50.

This enormous construction will be able to transport goods and equipment literally to all corners of the earth. It can land on water, desert or ice, enabling access to remote and inaccessible places, from the jungles of Africa to the icy terrain of Canada.

“All the studies indicate that there is a market for up to 1,000 of these craft,” says Daniels.

That’s because Airlander 50 transforms a key metric for transportation: the cost per tonne kilometre (ie. the amount it costs to carry one tonne over one kilometre). For example, a mining company could slash the costs of transporting ore from a remote mine to a processing plant.

By delivering point to point, it will also reduce the frictional costs of transportation. The more borders and ports through which a cargo has to pass, the more it incurs bureaucracy and paperwork and, in many cases, the greater possibility of spoilage and theft of goods. Airlander will be able to travel from source to site. And its environmental credentials mean that it can claim to be the greenest form of cargo transport.

Funding for prototyping

It is for the prototyping and broad technological development of Airlander 50 that HAV secured £2.5m from Innovate UK alongside investment from a group of private investors. (One of the investors is Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of Iron Maiden, whose presence on the shareholder register gives literal rock star status to the venture.)

This really is a British SME with the potential to lead the world in its field.

The development is being led by HAV with other world-class British firms including avionics experts Bluebear Systems and materials company Forward Composites and specialist teams from Cranfield, Liverpool and Sheffield universities.

Funding to unlock private investment

Hybrid Air Vehicles has also been the recipient of a significant grant from the Regional Growth Fund, in one of 56 new awards announced on 12 February 2015.

The backing immediately unlocks equity investment from private individuals and will ultimately lead to commercial agreements with customers, who will continue the funding of the business through a series of trials and demonstrations taking place during 2016.

“We are delighted to have received RGF funding,” says Stephen McGlennan, CEO of HAV. “The commitment of the UK Government to our business is vital, and this will ensure we fly our innovative Airlander aircraft and enter the commercial market. To achieve this we need to create jobs, and the RGF grant immediately helps us to do this.”
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Plans for the Growing Airlander Business
Anyone living close to Cardington cannot help but notice the huge changes that have happened since HAV moved in nearly 4 years ago. We now have over 100 people on the site most days, and share our hangar with a very busy Warner Bros film studio and storage site. Next door in Hangar 2 the film industry is also making great progress, so busy days at Cardington now see over 1000 people arrive for a day’s work. With new roads and new housing coming, the pace of change will not slow down any time soon. At HAV, our focus now is on building from the great success of the initial Airlander 10 testing, and preparing to produce Airlander aircraft and deliver them all over the globe. So this is a natural time for us to make sure that we are set up for the future with the right site and the right facilities and we have been reviewing our needs to ensure that we can do just that. As a result we have concluded that we now need to begin a process of moving HAV to a new site, away from Cardington. We have worked with everyone on and around the site to make every effort to find a way to stay here, but after that extensive exercise we believe that moving is the right and pragmatic decision for us. We are proud of what we have achieved in the last 4 years and we couldn’t have done it without Cardington. We are constantly amazed by the support and affection of the vast majority of people and businesses in our area, and we are pleased to bring jobs and, we hope, other benefits including our STEM work and other activities to Bedford. We also benefit from the great transport links of this area and its proximity to London. So we’re very pleased to say that we don’t plan to move far. We will make further announcements in the coming weeks, and these will start with a new location for our Engineers and our other office-based teams to work from locally as from the beginning of December. You will also hear in the coming weeks that we will start to use other airfields a little further away to undertake testing and other operations of Airlander. We have been preparing for this transition for a long time – including right from the start by designing Airlander to be maintained and supported outside without need for a hangar after it is built. We’ve been busy this year proving all of our maintenance techniques work without coming back in to the hangar and have made very good progress with that. With extended flight testing and customer demonstrations about to start, some of which need more take-off and landing distance than Cardington allows, this is the right time for Airlander to start visiting some new locations. Finally, we hope to announce at a later date where our planned production location for Airlander will be sited. This location will be the focal point of new employment both in HAV and our supply chain providing nearly 2000 additional jobs in the UK, delivering parts and sub-assemblies for building, testing and delivering 12 or more aircraft per year. We plan to do this from “right-size” hangars, purpose designed for Airlander 10. We are now working to finalise the design for these and will reveal more in future issues. For now, though, we can reveal that our approach to this has been as innovative as you would expect, and we have turned to the event structures industry to develop a road-transportable hangar that can be erected very rapidly in a new location. This gives us - and our customers - the flexibility to respond quickly to demand for hangars here, or in the future operating locations for the aircraft. All this makes it a very exciting time for HAV and the Airlander project. This is, of course, tinged with real sadness to be starting to move away from Cardington and gratitude to everyone in and around us for their support and help over the years here. We hope that Cardington can remain a testing and mooring site for Airlander – as we believe it should - long into the future. With 100 years of heritage behind it, and Airlander just beginning its journey into the world, who knows what new chapters of our industry will be written at Cardington in the future?

Video Channel

How Collaborative Expertise Launched the Airlander Project
A video from The Institution of Engineering and Technology explaining how Hybrid Air Vehicles has been working with Forward Composites to apply decades of race-bred British carbon composite expertise in the development and manufacture of the revolutionary Airlander.
RT @CorpsSTEM: I bet was hugely interesting! An amazing aircraft and design. I wonder what the future holds for this form of travel... agai…
RT @1066HitchinSqn: Tonight the Squadron welcomed Robin Evans to talk to us about #Airlander and introduce us to @AirVehicles #whatwedo @Co…
RT @BBC3CR: Airlander 10 to fly 'higher, faster and further' from Cardington base https://t.co/roF55WVDPi