Airlander is often compared to the airships that have come and gone throughout history. There are of course similarities. However, Airlander is a hybrid aircraft, which means that it uses a combination of proven aerospace technologies. That includes the gas-filled hull and its fabric, principles which are taken from non-rigid airships. Airlander combines these airship principles with aeroplane-like aerodynamic lift from Airlander’s wing-like shape and vectored thrust.
Visually Airlander may conjure up memories, but even the shape of the aircraft is significantly different to airships from the past as it has been specifically designed to generate aerodynamic lift efficiently. Whether we are talking about the advanced engineering and modern innovations used in the design of the aircraft, or Airlander’s uses and benefits to society, there are certainly more differences than similarities.
Helium not hydrogen
One of the key factors in the airship disasters of almost a century ago was the use of flammable hydrogen as the lifting gas. Today we use helium as our lifting gas, which is completely inert and non-flammable. What’s more, according to the US Geological Survey, there are at least 50 years of known helium reserves based on current consumption. Building and operating 600 Airlander aircraft would account for just 1% of annual helium consumption.
However, where hydrogen is useful is as a clean, green future fuel source, you can read more about this here. As the aerospace industry moves towards the use of hydrogen as a fuel, we’re preparing Airlander to be a lead adopter of hydrogen fuel cells and electric motors. Our standard engines will be able to use biofuels too.
Airships from our past typically operated in a lighter-than-air mode - close to neutrally buoyant. This meant they had to manage their fuel, payload and ballast weights against available gas lift all the time. Airlander, however, is a heavier-than-air aircraft that uses its engines’ thrust and aerodynamic shape to gain the lift which carries much of the variable weights of fuel, people, equipment or cargo, along with the lighter-than-air gas filled hull which lifts the fixed weight of the aircraft.
It is Airlander’s hybrid design that provides the operational flexibility that the airships of yesterday did not have. Airlander can manoeuvre on the ground or water once it has landed. Airlander requires minimal infrastructure, needing only an open, relatively flat space of 600m to take off and land.
The effect of weather
In the past, strong head winds and lightning presented challenges for the operation of the old airships. We have, however, come a long way in our ability to predict weather and navigate accordingly. For example, we can now plan a route from A to B taking into account weather patterns to save time and fuel, compared to simply flying the direct route from A to B into a head wind. Aviation regulations have also advanced a lot over the years; now every commercial aircraft must be type certified and capable of flying in a wide range of weather conditions. Airlander is no exception and will be able to withstand lightning, icing, and operate in most weathers.
A non-rigid structure
Airlander is constructed in a different way from many of the big airships of 90+ years ago. Unlike those cigar-shaped aircraft, Airlander has a non-rigid structure whose shape is maintained by a modest internal pressure. This offers a number of benefits including providing a relatively low radar return as it is constructed from fabric. This helps Airlander avoid detection in defence and security applications. A non-rigid structure also means the aircraft does not attract lightning to the same extent that the old metal framed rigid airships did. While static builds up on the skin of Airlander during flight (as it does on all aircraft) we deal with this in exactly the same way as conventional aeroplanes via the use of static discharge wicks and earthing on landing.
Modern day safety
The airships that our grandparents will have known were developed over 90 years ago! This means the technology we use on Airlander has had 90 years of development time. That’s 90 years of material development, 90 years of engine improvements, and 90 years of electrical improvements. The technology that we use on Airlander today is the product of science and engineering that have changed exponentially over the years. We have designed Airlander with today’s materials, today’s technology, and today’s safety standards – the same standards that all modern large passenger aeroplanes adhere to.
A versatile aircraft
Airlander’s hybrid aircraft features mean that it will offer a solution for many markets. Airlander is perfectly suited to comfortable passenger travel and will also provide a solution to the logistics industry and a unique surveillance and communications platform. Traditional airships were extremely efficient and by taking advantage of the best features of lighter-than-air, Airlander offers a clear pathway to sustainable aviation.