Paris Air Show

Will Hybrid Airships Really Take Off?

 - June 15, 2017, 5:59 AM

At the last Paris Air Show, Lockheed Martin (LM, Chalet 324) gave an upbeat presentation on its LMH-1 hybrid airship and appointed a “reseller” staffed by veterans of the logistics business to secure a launch order. Two years later, LM has only a letter of intent. Meanwhile, British company Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV, Stand 30) has a flying prototype, but has struggled to progress with the test program and find a customer.

The promise of the hybrid airship is seductive. The blend of aerostatic and aerodynamic lift offers long-endurance operations at low financial and environmental cost into remote areas without roads or runways. Many potential users have endorsed the idea—resource exploration and extraction companies; governments needing persistent surveillance or communications platforms; aid agencies that must bring rapid relief to stricken areas; and even luxury tourism operators. But despite all the talk of a “game-changing technology,” the promise remains unfulfilled.

HAV has a flying prototype mainly thanks to a failed U.S. Army program to provide persistent surveillance over Afghanistan. The Northrop Grumman (NG) Long-Endurance Multipurpose Vehicle (LEMV) flew only once in the U.S. before it was canceled in 2010. HAV was the platform subcontractor to NG. It shipped the LEMV back to the UK, re-branded it as the AirLander 10, and flew it again last August. But seven days later it made an uncontrolled heavy landing on its second flight, with repairs and modifications taking eight months.

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works has been studying hybrid airships for most of the past 20 years. In 2006, it flew a subscale prototype six times. Surprisingly for a large, defense-driven company, LM maintained a small development team at Palmdale, California even after the Pentagon lost interest. In particular, the team has developed a sophisticated flight control system and an air cushion landing system (ACLS). It has built a full-scale mockup of the flight deck, passenger and cargo compartments of the LMH-1. But LM says it won’t make the multi-million dollar investment in a full-scale prototype until it has secured a commercial launch customer.

That prospect edged a little closer in March 2016, when British start-up operator Straightline Aviation signed a letter of intent for 12 LM hybrid airships. This company is run by veterans who were previously associated with Richard Branson and his ventures into lighter-than-air operations. Straightline is hoping to secure commitments from oil, gas and mining companies to use the 20-metric-ton-payload LMH-1 in remote locations such as Alaska, Canada and China.

When AIN met with Straightline chairman Brian Kessler recently in Los Angeles, the company was still awaiting commitments from end-users. But this inveterate entrepreneur and investor was still optimistic. He sees multiple applications for the LMH-1, and is mindful of the scaling-up potential of hybrids, thanks to the “square-cube law.” That is, if you double the length of a hybrid (or an airship), its surface area increases four-fold but the resulting increase in weight and drag is handsomely compensated by an eight-fold increase in volume. So while the LMH-1 will cater for the specialized, “remote lift” market, later developments could have 500-metric-ton payloads and offer door-to-door intercontinental transport that is cost-competitive with—and far quicker than—sea freight.

HAV has been slow to admit that the Airlander 10 is not really suited to the remote-lift market. Its payload is only 10 metric tons, and no large cargo-carrying compartment has been designed. Still, the company has attracted enough investment and grant money to get flying again, with various improvements to the platform. It now needs to secure—at the very least—some paying contracts to demonstrate its utility for communications or surveillance. Unfortunately, although the UK government has provided a small amount of development funding, the UK Ministry of Defence has to date expressed no interest.