Considering the fact that airships have been around for a while now, it’s hard to believe that they are thought of as emerging technologies today. But that’s exactly the case given recent advances in this arena. Hydrogen airships have a troubled history due to several significant historical disasters. However, new technologies could help reduce this risk drastically.
A Closer Look
Helium is a resource that’s starting to run low. On the other hand, any industrialized country can cheaply manufacture all the hydrogen it could ever need. In fact, hydrogen is a byproduct of some industrial processes. This means that researchers are turning to it as a cheap lifting gas. The benefits of hydrogen airships might outweigh the perceived risks, and they produce relatively little pollution. In some ways, airships are actually much safer than jet aircraft.
One organization in the UK has planned a visionary vertical airship powered by renewable energy. This proposed vessel would be a sort of floating hotel, transporting passengers on transoceanic voyages in decadent splendor. Speeds could allegedly reach 150 Km/hr, which means that one could fly to Shanghai from California in around 90 hours. Transatlantic trips would take under 38 hours. While these speeds don’t necessarily seem competitive with jet aircraft, airships have some other advantages.
Plans show that they can be built in ways that don’t use fossil fuels. Fuel cells and photovoltaic panels would generate more than enough power for a craft like this. Airships can fly extremely low and get around obstacles without much threat to people on the ground. They aren’t nearly as sensitive to the weather as heavier-than-air flying machines are either. They might even be a great way to bring the advantages of flight to people who otherwise couldn’t fly because of a medical condition. After all, airships are gentler than the competition.
With fuel prices spiraling out of control, these craft could be seen as a way to cut back on imported sources of energy. In the future, once we’ve worked our way through fossil fuels, they might be an alternative to consider. Mechanical systems would harness the power of the wind to make flight particularly easy. While this might seem like a technological regression, new polymers and engineering schemes have helped to make it a real possibility.
Hydrogen’s flammability still poses a major risk. Researchers are studying buoyancy control methods that would help to reduce the risk of ignition. By maintaining certain relative concentrations of gases within the airship’s internal volume, crews wouldn’t be dealing with the same mixtures that caused the Hindenburg disaster.
Structural ties would reduce weight as well. Those familiar with the R-101 disaster wouldn’t have to worry as much about repeating it. Even if these developments never replace regular aircraft, they might very well carve out a new niche industry in the future. What do you think? Would you fly in an airship?
Michele Trancossi, Antonio Dumas, Mauro Madonia, Jose Pascoa, & Dean Vucinic (2012). Fire-safe Airship System Design SAE Int. J. Aerosp. , 11-21 : 10.4271/2012-01-1512