For many years now, the prospect of a huge and revolutionary new form of aerial transport has been looming. The hybrid airship gains 60% of its lift from helium, but the other 40% is gained aerodynamically. There are many potential applications, such as long-endurance surveillance, airlift into remote locations without runways, and luxury tourism. Operating costs are much lower than conventional aircraft and helicopters. Operating characteristics are much better than conventional airships.
And yet, despite the best efforts of various enthusiastic developers, not a single customer has been secured. There have been many “Letters of Interest” and the like, from armed forces, coastguards, mineral exploitation companies, tour operators and so on. But that elusive first firm order has always been just over the horizon.
The two most credible projects are the Airlander (above) from Britain’s Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), and the LMH-1 (below) from Lockheed Martin in the US. Both companies have sunk large amounts of money into progressing the state-of-the-art, and marketing. HAV claims leadership, having first flown its full-scale design in 2012 as the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) for the US Army. After that programme was cancelled, HAV shipped the prototype to the UK where it was test-flown six times in 2016-17 before the second of two accidents destroyed it. Lockheed Martin flew a subscale prototype back in 2006 but won’t build the real thing without a launch order.
HAV has spent some £50 million on the Airlander since 2012. Some of that came from government grants, and some from loans. But until last year, the majority came from a few key investors, plus £3.3 million from a legion of small shareholders who were attracted by two ‘crowd funding’ rounds. It has been a heroic struggle, that was continued last year largely thanks to a £20 million insurance payout on the lost prototype.
Now, though, HAV needs another £4 million to keep going throughout 2019. It needs much more than that to launch production – assuming that a firm order is achieved. The company says that it is negotiating with a potential “strategic partner” in the aerospace/defence business, who could buy a “substantial” minority stake.
Why should such a partner be interested? HAV says it has developed unrivalled intellectual property and know-how. It has been refining the Airlander design: new engines, fuel tanks, cabin configuration, landing arrangement, and a different configuration of ballonets (the air-filled bags within the envelope whose main purpose is to maintain a constant pressure differential as the helium expands or contracts due to altitude or temperature).
At first glance, HAV and Lockheed Martin are rivals, engaged in a ‘David and Goliath’ struggle. But in practice, they are addressing different markets. The payload of the Airlander is really only 3-5 tonnes, depending on the endurance required (which can be up to five days). That’s enough to carry a good suite of surveillance sensors, or 16 passengers. The LMH-1 is being designed to carry 20 tonnes in a cargo bay that has the same cross-section as a C-130. It is therefore more suited to the “remote lift” market.
I really hope that 2019 brings good news for both these projects. The development of the hybrid airship over the past 25 years is a fascinating story, which I hope to tell in full-length book. And I would like that book to have a happy ending.