Airlander 10: World’s largest aircraft slowly drifts toward commercial use
Feast your eyes upon Airlander 10, a massive airship that's currently under construction in a suitably oversized hangar in England. The ginormous blimp was originally going to be deployed by the US Army for long-term surveillance, but in 2012 the project had to be canned due to delays and budgetary issues. That wasn't the end of this airship's story, though: Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), the craft's original designer, bought it back from the US in 2013—and now, with grants from the UK government and European Union along with a crowdfunding campaign, the world's largest aircraft will hopefully fly again.
The dirigible dream, for better or worse, is one of those technological boondoggles that simply refuses to die. Airships have enough unique advantages over other types of aircraft that someone, somewhere has always been trying to create a blimp that can either be commercialized (for cargo hauling, telecommunications) or militarized (for surveillance and reconnaissance). The Airlander 10, originally dubbed the Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV), was designed by HAV in partnership with Northrop Grumman for the US Army. If everything had gone to plan, there would have been three LEMVs hovering above Afghanistan, acting as communications relays and surveillance platforms.
Only one LEMV was built before the US Army canceled the project, however. There was at least one successful test flight in New Jersey in 2012 (video embedded below), but that was it. In September 2013, Hybrid Air Vehicles bought back the LEMV from the US Army for $301,000. Work continues to reassemble the blimp in Hangar 1 at Cardington Airfield in Bedfordshire, England—which, fittingly enough, has been used for various other airship programs over the last 90 years or so.
According to the Airlander 10's listed tech specs (PDF), it is 92 meters (302 feet) long, 43.5 meters (143 feet) wide, and 26 meters (85 feet) tall. The envelope has a volume of 38,000 cubic meters (1.34 million cubic feet); it's filled with helium, so it won't explode like the Hindenburg. The skin of the envelope is made from a composite of Kevlar, Mylar, and Vectran (all polymers), which Hybrid Air Vehicles claims can withstand some small arms fire. There are four propellers—two at the back, and one each at the front left and front right—powered by four diesel-powered turbocharged V8 engines. Max airspeed is about 80 knots, or 92 mph, with a payload capacity of around 10,000 kg (22,000 pounds).
In February, HAV received a £3.4 million (~$5 million) grant from the UK government; in March, the company got another €2.5 million (~$2.7 million) from the EU; and at the time of writing, HAV has raised £600,000 (~$890,000) via crowdfunding. At the moment, HAV seems to be pitching the Airlander 10 as a greener (i.e., lower carbon footprint) way of moving stuff around as opposed to fuel-guzzling jetliners and trucks. The UK government in general seems to be keen to encourage the growth of small and medium sized businesses, especially in the realms of science, technology, and aerospace.
The Airlander 10, like every other airship that has come before it, is a complicated proposition. On the one hand, it certainly feels like we should be able to find a use for a green(er), low-operating-cost aircraft that can stay up in the sky for weeks on end. On the other hand, given their low cruising speed and the massive amounts of investment going into competing technologies such as conventional unmanned aerial vehicles and low-level satellites, we think it will be hard for airships to carve out more than a token slice of the aircraft pie.
It certainly would be cool to see giant airships puttering through the skies, though, carrying cargo and providing high-speed network connectivity both in rural and urban areas.
Hybrid Air Vehicles had planned to carry out its first UK test flight last year, but it never occurred. Now the company's stance is a little less bold; it's still working toward a test flight, but no exact date is being publicized.