Uses for Airships
There have been many uses proposed for Lighter-Than-Air Vehicles (LTAV), some eminently practical, and some which are the stuff of fantasy. While the advances of technologies, techniques and materials may continue to expand the capabilities of LTAV, they will remain a marginal technology until the key decision makers in government and industry can see the clear benefits of using LTAV in a given role. The politics of economics also plays a major part in the broad acceptance of LTA vehicles. While the design and construction of conventional aircraft can support tens of thousands of jobs across the economy, the comparative simplicity and small range of roles that LTA vehicles can currently undertake, will probably only support a small industry. However, the drive for low- and then zero-emission aviation, and the need for low-energy aviation solutions as the world transitions away from fossil fuels and onto renewable energy, has bought airships back into sharp focus. Their use of free-lift from their lifting gas, together with their internal space and low energy requirements, make airships a good platform for early deployment of hybrid engines, fully electric propulsors, and ultimately hydrogen fuel-cell. Airships have the capability of being zero-emission long before conventional Heavier-Than-Air aviation.
In the opinion of the Airship Association, the following roles can be best fulfilled by LTAV which are currently in production, or are in the design phase from reputable/proven manufacturers or engineering houses.
Surveillance related tasks, using manned, optionally manned or unmanned vehicles, include:
Persistent Surveillance: Conventional Airships have proven cost effective in this role particularly in the maritime environment, although it was also used with some success in Northern Ireland in the mid 1990's. This past success has been due to a number of factors: the long endurance of LTAV when compared to other aerial platforms; the low vibration environment; fuel economy. Use of tethered Aerostats in Iraq, Afghanistan and along the southern border of the USA has also raised the comparative economy of LTA platforms as an airborne platform for area surveillance
Security Surveillance (event security such as the Olympics)
Maritime Surveillance: although there are no LTAV currently flying that can match the multi-day endurance of the US Navy Airships of the 1959's and 1960's, the concept of increasing the horizon of a naval task force that has no access to carrier or land-borne aircraft, with a low-cost force-multiplier should be fairly attractive in certain areas. For example, the radar of a frigate at 30m above sea level can cover some 21.6 KM to its horizon, giving it a coverage of @ 1,464 sq km. A radar at 1660m above sea level, would have a horizon at 148km and a coverage of some 68841sq km.
Conservation Work: whether complimenting the work of anti-poaching patrols in the world’s nature reserves, or working with the authorities to stop illegal logging operations in the Amazon rain forrest, or illegal strip mining in Africa, airships are uniquely positioned to make a difference in this critical area by using their long endurance and ability to carry sophisticated sensor loads.
Point to Point Heavy Lift Transport.
The current crop of Hybrid designs seems to hold a great deal of promise to overcome many of the weaknesses of earlier generations of LTAV. In particular some of the ground-handling and load-exchange problems that have dogged LTA designs over the decades have been addressed. Some of the hybrid designs are claimed to be capable of transporting up to 200 tons over a range of 3200 miles, with a trade-off between increasing range and reducing the disposable payload.
Humanitarian Relief Operations.
Some of the newer designs for heavy-lift airships such as the Airlander 50, Pathfinder-3, Flying Whales and ATLANT vehicle lend themselves to carrying emergency relief supplies into disaster areas because of their ability to land in unprepared landing sites close to the point of need, or, if circumstances dictate otherwise, to hover while they off-load cargoes. In this role they combine the heavy-lift capabilities for the ubiquitous C130 Hercules with the versatility of a helicopter. One company wants to go further and equip their heavy-lift cargo airships with a fully fitted emergency clinic an trauma centre (complete with staff) that can be flown directly to the point of need.
There are many beautiful areas of the world where increasing levels of tourism are damaging the environment, or where it is simply not possible to build the kind of infrastructure needed to support tourism, where the airship's zero-emissions and ability to operate without infrastructure, offer viable alternatives. The adage that visitors should ’take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints’ is fully realised by airship-enable tourism. Whether observing the wild-life in Africa whilst flying almost silently over them at 400’, or visiting previously inaccessible places like the arctic or antartic, eco-tourism is now likely to be one of the first commercial roles for airships.