After many false starts and 20 years of development, the world’s first commercial cargo hybrid airship is set to launch in 2018 – with its first customer. So who is going to use it and what are the implications for the air cargo sector? Will Waters investigates
Cargo airships prepare for take-off
Since the public relations (and human) catastrophe of the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, the commercial use of airships has mostly been limited to niche operations focused around advertising and aerial sports event filming. Occasional projects have emerged promising a bright future for cargo airships – such as Cargolifter in the late 1990s – but have never got off the ground, figuratively and often literally. But more recently, interest has returned in the potential for cargo transport via ‘hybrid’ airships, with competing models proposed by Lockheed Martin, Aeroscraft, and Hybrid Air Vehicles/Northrop Grumman (HAV/NG).
With the US military investing hundreds of millions of dollars into HAV/NG to create a surveillance craft, that model became the frontrunner to provide a cargo spin-off. However, the US Army eventually abandoned the project due to logistical and other concerns.
But now, after 20 years of development work, the world’s first commercial cargo airship seems finally to be really coming, and is set to launch in 2018, after manufacturer Lockheed Martin received an order for 12 of its 20-tonne net payload LMH-1 hybrid cargo airships. There are plans also for a 90-tonne net payload version later.
Lockheed Martin says its hybrid airship represents “a revolution in remote cargo delivery”, capable of carrying more than 20 metric tonnes of cargo along with up to 19 passengers and two pilots to and from locations that lack road or airport infrastructure, as well as being a major milestone in the development of sustainable aviation.
The airship’s tri-lobe shape contains the helium that contributes around 80% of the vehicles upward lift, while the remainder comes from its forward-propulsion system and aerodynamic shape, when in normal flight. Lockheed Martin stresses that unlike traditional ‘lighter-than-air’ airships, its hybrid airship does not require pre-existing infrastructures such as mooring masts or a platform to offload cargo, with the vehicle’s heavier-than-air design and its Air Cushion Landing System (ACLS) overcoming these previous infrastructure restraints.
Indeed, the ACLS allows the airship to land on any terrain – including on water with waves up to 1 metre high. Once landed, the air cushion system can be reversed, securing the airship to the ground, and its propulsion system combined with the ACLS system – which is based on hovercraft technology – can be used to manoeuvre the vehicle forwarders or backwards along the ground or water for long distances, if necessary.
The manufacturer and its launch customer, Straightline Aviation (SLA), say the primary initial market identified will be oil and gas or mining companies and their engineering contractors, but they also insist it has many other potential uses, such as installing wind turbines and mobile phone masts in remote areas, disaster relief work, as an alternative to ice-roads, or even as a link between remote agricultural areas and existing infrastructure for the transport of perishables. There has also been interest in using the craft in a ‘medevac’ context.
Based in the UK, the leadership team of SLA has deep-rooted experience in airship operations and established the company specifically to act as an owner-operator of hybrid airships. Mike Kendrick, SLA co-founder and CEO, said: “We are delighted to be first in line with this magnificent aircraft that is going to dramatically change the way cargo is moved around the world. The clear-cut economic and environmental advantages of these Hybrids are attracting vast amounts of attention from a wide-range of potential end users.”
Kendrick says that the costs per mile of the hybrid airship are around one third of those for fixed-wing aircraft such as a Boeing 737 and between one seventh and one tenth of the heavy-lift helicopters currently often used by the oil and gas or mining sector to transport cargo into hard-to-reach locations, giving the hybrid airship a compelling economic rationale. It could also carry significantly larger payloads than even the biggest heavy-lift helicopters, and over much longer distances. It travels at 60 knots (110km/h) with a range of 1,400 nautical miles (2,600km), and is efficient at any kind of distance between within that range, SLA says, while a helicopter has a maximum range of around 400km.
Kendrick says SLA will function as the owner operator of the aircraft and plans to initially work mainly direct with end customers, “offering a turnkey service”, principally to customers from the energy and mining sectors, which had already identified the need for the vehicle on medium-term projects, with the vehicles providing regular transport for specific projects over a period of one or two years. It was likely to become available for ad hoc work at a later stage, for example via freight forwarders and charter brokers.
Other potential uses include providing signalling capacity from the sky – for example at major events such as the Super Bowl, but also in disaster relief, “where you can put one of these in the sky above an area where the communications are down and build the communications immediately”, he notes.
“So, it has got a much wider role, but forgive us for initially focusing on the immediate commercial role. And while this is a ‘slow-moving aircraft’ – it is slower than a jet – it is certainly much faster than a boat, and it goes as fast as you can travel by road, but in a straight line.”
Mark Dorey, chief operations officer for SLA, says: “Other energy services, such as building wind farms or solar farms, etc. – wherever you are looking to move large or heavy objects to remote locations – those are certainly things that we are targeting. We are already in discussions with people in northern Canada and Alaska, the Middle East, and China, and in Africa.”
He says the airship’s ability to land on water also means “you can get to downtown areas in cities which are otherwise gridlocked. So, the hybrid’s great at alleviating bottlenecks in traditional transport networks in those areas that are not well served by transport infrastructure.”
Rob Binns, CEO of Hybrid Enterprises – which is marketing the LMH-1 on behalf of Lockheed Martin – says that although port-to-port shipments by ocean will clearly usually be cheaper, and road transport where roads exist, more than two-thirds of the world’s land area and more than half the world’s population have no direct access to paved roads.
“As you move farther away from infrastructure, cost, time, and the safety of transport becomes more of a challenge,” Binns adds. “Hybrid airships enable affordable and safe delivery of heavy cargo and personnel to virtually anywhere – water or land, in normal flying weather conditions – with little to no infrastructure.”
Although Lockheed Martin has been working on developing a hybrid cargo airship for around 20 years, one factor that has contributed to the recent growth of interest in the vehicle has reportedly been the drop in energy and commodity prices, which has caused mining and energy firms to re-examine the logistics of their exploration projects. Whereas in the past they may have afforded to build entire roads or airports to support new extraction projects, the new cargo airship can instead be used to transport materials to and from the projects without the need to create new transport infrastructure, cutting costs as well as the environmental impact.
Energy firms are also now having to explore increasingly environmentally sensitive parts of the world, where building road or airport infrastructure may be impossible, uneconomic, or environmentally unacceptable.
Binns acknowledges that the drop in energy and commodity prices has reinforced the need among companies in those sectors for cost-effective logistics services, although he insists that the hybrid airship “has a place in the transport system when commodity prices are high or low”. He says the main factor determining the timing of this first order had “more to do with the final design (being) ready for market”.
A prototype predecessor to the LMH-1 hybrid cargo airship, the P-791, a fully functional, manned flight demonstrator, flew its first flight as long ago as 2006, but the LMH-1 has undergone significant development and design changes. One key adaptation of the LMH-1 that sets it apart from rival hybrid airships also currently under development includes its ACLS system.
This latter feature highlights one of the factors that had prevented previous generations of airships being practical for commercial cargo operations, with lighter-than-air airships requiring a crew of 15-22 people that would tie the airship to a ‘mooring mast’, which also had to be moved to the landing or destination location.
After investing more than 20 years to “develop the technology, prove the performance, and ensure there are compelling economics for the hybrid airship”, and completed all required FAA certification planning steps for the new class of aircraft, Lockheed Martin is now working on the construction of the first commercial model and the FAA Type certification process.
“Before we deliver the first hybrid to Straightline, we will spend a year flying the airship for the last of the certifications in different environments around the world, to prove the technology,” Binns says. But he cannot see any technical issues that will delay the commercial availability of the world’s first hybrid cargo airship in 2018.
Dory says: “We are anticipating taking delivery of the first aircraft in 2018, and then taking the rest over the following couple of years.”
Looking beyond that, what are Lockheed Martin’s and Hybrid Enterprises’ expectations in terms of how many of these hybrid cargo airships may come into the market over the next 10 to 15 years?
“We see the 20-tonne that we are marketing now well within the hundreds, and as we look into the future, the next potential airship for us would be 90 tonnes, and we see an even bigger market for that,” says Binns. “We have done a design, but we haven’t made a decision to go forward yet. But we could potentially see it within five years, the delivery of the first (90-tonne net payload) vehicle.”
He would see that competing not just with heavylift freighters such as the AN-124. “I see a much broader market than that,” notes Binns. “The Antonov carries big payloads to places with long runways. The 90-tonne (hybrid airship) could be used again in oil and gas and mining in larger projects (including where there are no runways), but it also starts to compete with general freight in different parts of the world.”