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High flying demand or bust?

High flying demand or bust?

By Hpanchal on June 30, 2011

Ron Hochstetler, director of LTA programs at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), couldn’t disagree more. Although he also points to the other uses for zeppelins, such as scientific research and sightseeing, Hochstetler says the heavy-lift transportation implications for airships are numerous. In fact, he maintains, “the cargo market offers the airship the highest profitability margins, has strong demand in many international regions, and appears to be a highly sustainable business.”

Hochstetler’s company got involved with the LTA market nearly nine years ago when it was tasked with restoring a U.S. Army-owned airship — the Skybus 30k — that had been out of commission for years. To ensure a successful renovation, SAIC charged top airship engineers with redesigning the ineffective or absent parts.

After receiving glowing remarks from its government-based client and obtaining the first Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Experimental Certificate issued for an unmanned airship, the company embarked on another project: designing the Skybus 8k. At 80,000 cubic feet, the Skybus 8k can reach an altitude of 10,000 feet and transport 500 pounds for 24 hours, Hochstetler says.

Several ideas were tossed around to deal with the fact that the FAA and air traffic control experts prohibit unmanned aircraft from flying in national airspace. In the end, SAIC decided to “obtain an FAA certified manned airship and convert it to incorporate an ‘optionally piloted’ configuration,” Hochstetler says. “We were fortunate in that an excellent manned airship came on the market at the right time.”

Hochstetler also worked with the now-insolvent CargoLifter to assess the market for cargo airships. “So I was well aware of the great potential and technical challenges that large cargo airships offered to many current transport problems, especially in remote regions,” Hochstetler says. “SAIC has also conducted a comprehensive study of the best technologies and prime market sectors for cargo airships and what design and performance elements offered the best balance for meeting both commercial and [U.S. Department of Defense] transport necessities.”

The general consensus among logistics experts? “The design needed to be ‘right-sized’ so it could carry an economically useful load, but not be so large that its very size magnified the engineering and construction challenges before us,” Hochstetler explains. Enter the Skybus 1500HL. Resolved to avoid “the problems that have prevented other companies from succeeding in building and operating large cargo airships,” Hochstetler says this airship features a capacity of 20 tonnes.

Although Hochstetler maintains that SAIC could have developed an airship with a higher payload — 40 to 50 tonnes — he questions the demand for it. “We knew that the last thing an aircraft operator wants to do is fly around with a partial load while still paying full hourly operating expenses,” he says. “We reasoned that there would be a greater likelihood for a 20-tonne ship to fly with a full load most of the time.”

An airship renaissance?

SAIC is not the only company advocating the use of airships for freight transportation. The market also got a big boost in March when Lockheed Martin announced that it was collaborating with Canada-based Aviation Capital Enterprises to develop a hybrid airship. Tasked by Aviation Capital to design and construct a fleet of airships that meet FAA regulations, Lockheed Martin is currently working on a 20-tonne-payload aircraft called SkyTug.

Unlike lighter-than-air variations, hybrid airships like SkyTug get their lift from helium and gravity. To Aviation Capital, they offer the benefit of needing virtually no fixed-ground infrastructure and being able to launch and land on tricky surfaces, such as water. And the disaster-relief implications for such an aircraft are apparent, the company’s executive chairman, Kirk Purdy, maintains.

Because hybrid airships don’t require a runway, heavy freight, such as medicine and other life-saving supplies, can be dispersed to remote destinations like the Amazon. What’s more, Purdy says, “they enable mining, oil and gas, and pipeline support missions along with humanitarian support flights that can’t be accomplished by any other cargo aircraft today.”

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