1957: Russia is planning to launch an artificial satellite
Nice idea in theory, but there's good reasons nobody else has succeeded.
Russia is reportedly spending up to $240bn developing transport links to Siberia, the country's far eastern provinces and the Arctic – and is actively looking at using cheaper-than-plane airships as part of those transport links. According to a report (in Russian) in daily newspaper Kommersant, plans for the United Eurasia …
The biggest historical problems with airships seem to be that :-
1) They used hydrogen, which burns and explodes quite well because helium wasn't available. No longer a problem.
2) Because the structural materials used were heavy, the amount used was kept to a minimum resulting in a structurally weak airship. Today we have lightweight composites and computer modelling to show these things, so this is unlikely to be a problem.
Additionally, there is the point that people stopped trying to build airships. Why? By the late 1930's powered aircraft had the performance to take over pretty much any role that airships could perform.
I can't see any particular reason why it should be impossible to create a viable airship these days. Making one that is economically viable compared to established air transport is going to be one problem, and the safety record that heavier than air aviation has established after a long trail of disasters is going to be difficult to compete with, especially since heavier than air established it's safety record via the trial and error method after disasters, whereas a few learning disasters is likely to put paid to airships again.
"I'm stupid, but why can't we mix helium and hydrogen?"
You can, but why would you bother? If you're going to use hydrogen then you'd use 100% as the embrittlement and flammability issues are already there and hydrogen is cheap.
FWIW modern airship technology includes pressurisation tech to inflate/deflate the gasbags rather than simply dumping the gas overboard and/or using water ballast. Venting and ballast still exist for emergency use but for more gentle ascent/descent you can keep all your gas. Walrus technology proves you can "stick" your airship to the ground if needed too.
It's also worth noting that unlike the 1940s (The US military used airships up to the loss of the Akron) we have lidar and radar tech which enables spotting clear air turbulence and weather cells at long enough range to go around them. Todays rigid airships are a far cry from the Hindenberg and blimps are used routinely for stuff like skycrane work in a fixed environment (such as forestry where tractors dragging logs would do a lot of ground damage or aren't practical on steep slopes)
The best way to position Airships is "slow, cheap, high capacity haulage". The hard part is their poor weather performance but that's not much different to helicoptors and things like a Mil 11 are much more expensive to run. If you can live with them being a fair-weather only device then they're useful.
"They used hydrogen, which burns and explodes quite well because helium wasn't available."
Not quite. Helium was available in the thirties but the US was the main supplier. The Hindenburg was using hydrogen when it caught fire in 1937 because the Americans had refused to supply Nazi Germany with the non-inflammable helium.
"because the Americans had refused to supply Nazi Germany"
Or in other words "Because helium wasn't available"
Just because it exists doesn't mean it's available.
FWIW most of the world's supply of helium currently comes from natural gas wells, but only about 0.01% of them worldwide are setup to capture the stuff (the rest just vent it).
There wouldn't be much of a shortage if more wells added helium capture tech (cost is the barrier - mainly that of trying to retain the stuff, it permeates through most containment) or if molten salt nuclear tech becomes commercially viable (the nuclear process produces quite a bit of helium but with current tech it mostly stays stuck in fuel rods and what doesn't is hard to capture from a high temperature high pressure sealed environment. Molten salt systems are unpressurised and need a sparge space behind the circulation pumps so it's mostly in one place and easy to capture)
AB "FWIW most of the world's supply of helium currently comes from natural gas wells, but only about 0.01% of them worldwide are setup to capture the stuff (the rest just vent it)"
China and Russia have 'recently' (a few years ago) signed a $400+B deal for natural gas, part of China's plan to reduce reliance on filthy coal. This implies that the Siberians will be installing plenty of new gas wells. They could probably extract helium along the way. So perhaps it all fits together.
Hydrogen is better than helium for balloons in just about every way. It's lighter, providing more lift; the molecules are larger, meaning they will take much longer to leak out of the balloon; it's way, way cheaper and easier to produce; and unlike helium, the supply is a renewable resource. As for the fire thing - it was the fabric of the Hindenberg that burned, the hydrogen was incidental at best.
The only reasons not to use it are (1) it's a bit dangerous to store (much like any other explosive fluid), and (2) there's more profit in selling helium.
What bothers me about airships for long-distance transport is the speed. If the ship manages an airspeed of 60 knots, then a gale force or stronger headwind means your ground speed will be zero or negative. I've found it hard to find decent data on the subject, but from what I have found it looks like in the upper troposphere, wind speeds are at least that fast fully 25% of the time. That's a lot of downtime.
" As for the fire thing - it was the fabric of the Hindenberg that burned, the hydrogen was incidental at best"
It was covered in canvas, with several doping agents. However none of these are highly flammable (please don't start quoting rubbish about powdered aluminium and iron oxide).
You may as well say pouring petrol on a cotton t-shirt on and lobbing a match on it, the resulting fire was caused by the t-shirt.
All well and good creating one and hoping "somebody needs transport of something heavy to remote places maybe without airstrips maybe a few times a month if you're lucky.
If you're responding to a need to shift 16 tonnes a time between 2 places as a shuttle, well your future looks a lot brighter.
Have they finally realized where the outflow of Siberian Russians towards Moscow and the inflow of Chinese folks to work in Siberia lead?
...nah, they still seem to believe that they are allied to a country which has never treated any other state as an ally (as opposed to "a vassal") in its 3000-years-plus history, LOL.
I feel it's a little disingenuous to quote the R101 case as concrete proof that Airships don't work.
R101 was a victim of typical British bureaucratic interference in an engineering project, and the design was betrayed by cost cutting and ill-informed autocratic oversight.
The R100, which was built in parallel by private interests, performed admirably, matched or exceeded all of the goals set by the same requirement as for the R101, and was a complete success.
Unfortunately, to hide the bungling which caused the R101 incident, the British government declared that the civilian Airship was not a viable proposition, and the successes of the R100 were quietly buried.
All of this is documented in the classic book 'Slide Rule':
Also there's an Iron Maiden song about it called 'Empire of the Clouds'.
And the 8th Doctor had a companion he rescued from the R101.
Funny old world.
Odd you mention Iron Maiden (as linked above as well). They must love their airships:
"Following investment from the British government and a number of other backers, including Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson, it has now been assembled."
That's not what the Wiki says, nor is it correct.
The British government decreed that a flight to India, using petrol engines, was too hazardous for R100 to undertake, because of the "unknown" effect of the tropical heat on petrol. This was complete nonsense, and was purely done so that the government sponsored craft would get the kudos for the Indian flight.
I don't get you. from the Wiki:
"R100 was built as part of a British governmet programme to develop airships to provide passenger and mail transport between Britain and the countries of the British Empire, including India, Australia and Canada.".
Should I now try to mend an apparently hurt British soul by claiming the "British airship effort" was indeed a great success like the Comet. Or could we just end this by agreeing that sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail.
Weather (wind) is the biggest issue for airships, this is what destroyed the ingenious USA airship based aircraft carriers.
One of them flew into the ocean for unknown reasons. A prominent theory is that their altimeter was grossly out of calibration, they found themselves suddenly approaching the looming surface in stormy night conditions, and they dipped their stern into the water at speed by applying hard up elevator.
Controlled flight into terrain is still a recurring problem in HTA flight after all these years and experience.
The other one was lost due to a structural flaw which they knew about and were IGNORING. Not simple vulnerability to "wind".
Funny, Graf Zeppelin flew over 1.7 million km in 9 years, encountering severe weather on many occasions, including a violent hailstorm, but never displayed any structural or flight endangerment due to weather. The sole exception was a single incident on her first crossing where some fabric ripped when she was mishandled penetrating a severe wather front.
"but there's good reasons nobody else has succeeded with them"
Where in the article is there any reference to these reasons? Apart, of course, from the obligatory reference to the R101 disaster, in the 1930s. Might it not be imagined that the necessary technology has improved a touch in the last eighty-five years?
Agreed, I thought that since this is a tech website there might be some technical discussion about the problems of maintaining buoyancy when cargo is loaded, plus handing heavy weather, instead we just get a lame reference to an accident 80 years ago...
I was thinking more about the cover of Led Zep 1 and how not to do it.
As for Russia, there are vast parts of the country (and in Kazakhstan) that are almost unreachable by wheeled vehicle.
Really heavy lift choppers or indeed Airships are ideal for supplying these wildernesses.
I've visited northern Siberia  and some places we visited were only accessible using a Hovercraft or amphibious vehicle but that is only workable for 3-4 months a year. Using an Airship with air temps of -50C (in still air) would be problematic. Many steel alloys are very brittle at these temp. Building them would be an interesting engineering problem. The Russians have plenty of experience building kit that works in these temps. I wouldn't dismiss these plans out of hand.
 The biggest problem facing us were the gazillion, gazillion mossies/sq metre that fill the air anywhere near water in summer.
"The biggest problem facing us were the gazillion, gazillion mossies/sq metre that fill the air anywhere near water in summer."
If they are the same as in Scotland then they are not mosquitoes but midges. It is said in Finland that they get bigger and more voracious the further north you travel. They do disappear in late July though - on a camping trip that welcome effect was very noticeable over only a few days. We saw the last stragglers in the evening camping on Punkaharju - otherwise a paradise for midges.
"Using an Airship with air temps of -50C (in still air) would be problematic. Many steel alloys are very brittle at these temp. Building them would be an interesting engineering problem."
Simply build them out of ice.:)
A staple of these sorts of articles is a mention of the Hindenburg, I'm surprised the author mentioned the R101 but not the even more famous (infamous?) Hindenburg disaster.
The author also makes the common mistake of confusing airships with blimps. An airship has a rigid frame (clearly visible in the pictures of the burning Hindenburg) that contains the gas bags and supports everything else, while a blimp is a big balloon that relies on being filled with gas to maintain it's shape.
It's not really clear just what the Atlant craft are, they may be a sort of hybrid.
In any case it doesn't really matter. I've long been a fan of lighter than air craft, it just makes so much sense for heavy hauling and even long distance passenger transport. It may take longer to get there but the fuel costs would be dramatically less than an airliner.
Now if we could just figure out how to build them with "gasbags" filled with nothing by high grade vacuum...
It is surprising that El Reg didn't refer to its own learned article about such vehicles.
Here's what appears to be the latest news on that "heavy lift" project.
I always understood that the derivation of "blimp" was from the UK Army designation of "Type B Limp" (i.e., needing gas pressure to maintain shape). The other lighter than air in use was "Type A Rigid".
Goes back to my days reading Boys' Own Paper, Valiant etc. Who needs Wikipedia?
"One of them flew into the ocean for unknown reasons. A prominent theory is that their altimeter was grossly out of calibration, they found themselves suddenly approaching the looming surface in stormy night conditions, and they dipped their stern into the water at speed by applying hard up elevator."
It sounds like the altimeter was working perfectly! An altimeter is just an aneroid barometer configured with a display with a dial that measures in altitude rather than a dial from STORMY to VERY DRY.
In other words, it doesn't actually measure your height from the ground, but the barometric pressure. This will drop the higher you get from ground level so lower pressure = higher altitude as far as an aneroid barometer based altimeter is concerned.
Unfortunately the barometric pressure at ground level will drop when a storm approaches (barometers are widely used for weather forecasting) so the mark on your altimeter may read 200 feet when your actually sitting on the tarmac until you hit the "zero" button. Or in this case they might have been slowly dropping altitude and finally going into the water with the pilot reading the same altitude.
In the right circumstances they could be ideal - and economically viable. Delivering bulk goods to distant places with rubbish infrastructure e.g. the arctic, amazonia, large deserts and ooh, how about Siberia? Wind conditions will limit their use, but surely they'd be more efficient and flexible than running 40-ton lorries across ice-covered lakes, and then being cut off in the summer.
I'm surprised no one has mentioned Worldwide Aeros Corp's VTOL airship which compresses and releases helium from circular rings (much like big bike tires) to vary its buoyancy in air.
Unfortunately the test vehicle was destroyed when the hanger it was in collapsed on it in 2014. Airships and bad luck do seem to go together.
I always thought the biggest problem for long range airships was fuel, in that the further you flew, the more you had to carry at the beginning of the journey, and got burnt during the journey, which made the airship get lighter the further it went. They used to get around this by venting the hydrogen at a proportional rate so the flight remained level. However due to the expense of helium, this isn't really considered an option these day, hence few new airships.
"They used to get around this by venting the hydrogen at a proportional rate so the flight remained level."
Later airships captured and condensed the water in engine exhaust in order to maintain trim.
"However due to the expense of helium, this isn't really considered an option these day"
If you have a compressor onboard you can pump helium (or hydrogen) into (relatively low pressure) storage tanks, taking it out of the gasbags. This has the same effect as chucking it overboard without actually chucking it overboard and means you don't need to faff about with complex condensing kit in a hot gas stream.
"I always thought the biggest problem for long range airships was fuel,"
Unfortunately DELAG didn't realize that, so their 1930's non-stop service between Germany and Brazil just went ahead and succeeded anyway.
The main reason long range passenger airships disappeared is the Hindenburg accident - I'm not going to call it a disaster - now days 35 killed in an air crash barely makes it out of the local news unless there's someone important onboard.
The engineering needed is challenging but not that exceptional, and both materials and monitoring systems have come a long way since the Hindenburg. While Helium will probably be chosen, there is no reason why hydrogen could not be handled safely. In many ways hydrogen is less dangerous than petrol because any spillage disappears PDQ. The reason airships have not been developed is that there is not a great need for them in the developed World, but they make a lot of sense when it is required to carry freight to/from areas with no ground infrastructure - you can deliver to exactly where the cargo is needed rather than requiring roads, rail or canals from an airport.
Hot hydrogen or hot helium would make sense to increase lifting capacity, the heating perhaps being provided by the waste heat from engines. Lift management and trim en-route is then achieved by a combination of cooling the gas in the envelope, and if that is insufficient, compressing it into high-pressure cylinders.
Have an upvote - and many "virtual" ones. You are spot on. Materials science, monitoring, command and control systems, and a host of other technologies have improved a hell of a lot since the 1930s. The idea of landing an airship like a helicopter is perfect for low-tech landing sites.
I'm surprised Canada isn't looking into this more as they have a similar problem to Russia. The north of Canada has a lot of isolated villages that are virtually inaccessible except by air most of the year, and many of them have only small or no air strips. All their heavy supplies have to be delivered during the short time the "ice roads" are driveable - sort of - by trucks. If these airships with VTOL turn out to be practical, this could make year-round supply of remote villages possible and help bring supply costs down. It might even be feasible to add a limited passenger service, too.
Mine's the one with the airship ticket in the pocket.
Oopsie. Big boo-boo right there. The Zeppelin NT, with a passenger capacity of 12, costs about $20 million each. A Cessna 208B Grand Caravan EX, with a passenger capacity of 13, costs about $2 million.
The Zeppelin has a range of 900 km at 115 km/h on 447 kW. The Cessna, 1996 km at 343 km/h on 647 kW.
The $40 million Airlander 10 is not believed to have any passenger facilities at all. A developed production version due in 2018 is touted as having 19 seats.
Maintenance costs are enormous for airships and far outweigh the fuel costs. And they have to be tended all the time while parked on the ground.
"The $40 million Airlander 10 is not believed to have any passenger facilities at all."
Neither does a 747-F
"A developed production version due in 2018 is touted as having 19 seats."
Which is about 12 more than I was expecting to see in a machine designed to be a cargo lifter for awkward or bulky items and/or areas with difficult access.
Passengers would get bored quickly. Put them on aeroplanes.
"Maintenance costs are enormous for airships and far outweigh the fuel costs. And they have to be tended all the time while parked on the ground."
Funnily enough the same applies to GA aircraft and - more to the point - to helicoptors.
Which is where we get to the point of them. These birds aren't competing with fixed wing aircraft. The competition is heavy lift helicoptors which are both extremely thirsty and limited in capacity (The biggest Sikorsky Skycrane can lift about 10 tons but it's only got a range of a few hundred miles at best while carry such loads)
There are also applications for carrying heavy/awkward cargo such as refinery crackers where roads aren't up to the task - these kinds of loads need upwards of 100 wheels, travel at 2-3mph, take the entire width of the road and by necessity are limited in their manouverability, and as such the expense of an airlander is justified (in the same way that an AN125 or 225 is justified for certain types of extremely large/heavy cargo even if the delivery flight cost might exceed that of the actual equipment.)
I'd guess that slower transport can cost more that faster transport purely on business hours of the journey itself.
An automatically smart guided airbourne cargo carrying vessel sounds good and good use of national resources (meaning: smart people, smart technologies, efficient costings and profitable margins allowing for returns on all of these emerging technologies?)?
Interim conclusion: Go Ruski GO! Go do it - be a world first pioneer?
Would be kinda neat to airships plying the skies again, even if they are used only for cargo. That said, I reckon there would be a fairly healthy market for passenger airships. Perhaps not huge, admittedly, but enough to be financially viable I would have thought.
Given the novelty of the method of travel, the relatively slow speed would be a feature on such a trip rather than a hindrance. After all, nobody takes a trip on an ocean cruise-liner for the speed of getting from A to B :-) For business and the like where speed is necessary you take a plane. For pleasure, why not be lofted through the air in comfort and style? I'd sure as hell pay good money for that.
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