High Hopes for New Hybrid Air Vehicle

Bring back the Blimp! Well a modern version of one that is.

Most of us view today’s blimp as a novel billboard for that well-known tire company, floating above sporting events with a fortunate few (6 passengers, 17 crewmen, 5 pilots and 1 PR manager) permitted to take a ride and wave to the fans below.

But is this really all this massive machinery was intended for? Was this ingenious invention truly masterminded as the mother ship of a promotional campaign for tires?

Perhaps a few of us maintain the nostalgic memory of the airships of yesterday. The well-known Zeppelin rigid airship, first patented in 1899, initiating the first commercial flights operated by Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-AG (DELAG).

Later, with the onset of World War I, Zeppelins were used by the German military as bombers and scouts for its operations. Now the Zeppelin brand name is most remembered as one of our all-time greatest rock bands.

The fundamental concept and underlying technology of the airship have gone unchanged since its inception, but after decades of contemplation it seems a spark has been recently ignited. Several companies are finding innovative uses and functional improvements to the design, evolving it into a hybrid airship that will benefit both military and commercial operations.

One example of such ship is Lockheed Martin’s Hybrid Air Vehicle P-791. This craft, with the appearance of three blimps collided, can be used as either a manned or unmanned vehicle for military surveillance or as a heavy-cargo transport vehicle.

The P-791 can fly for up to three weeks at a time at an altitude of 3,000 feet without refueling. It also allows for landing on practically any surface, be it land, water, air, sand or gravel, with an air-cushion landing gear designed to provide a reverse sucking functionality allowing for self-stabilization under windy conditions.

Why is this important? It eliminates the need for an extensive ground crew that would have previously been required. These features, along with the capacity to carry several tons of cargo make it ideal for moving heavy loads to remote locations.

Lockheed envisions future commercial benefits from its aircraft as well. Imagine the economic impact a readily available heavy-cargo hovercraft airship could have in remote regions lacking infrastructure for transportation. An airship could be a cost effective way to deliver materials and aid development, with reduced impact on the environment—airships have lower carbon emissions.

I wonder how far off we may be from using this technology in our automobiles, replacing the need for gas with helium and putting us in a Jetson fantasy world.  Are we moving toward a world where we will be quoting Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future: “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

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