These new airships aren't your father's blimps

A slew of next-generation lighter-than-air flying machines promise to do amazing feats, though problems remain.

By Bruce Kennedy May 10, 2013 11:57AM

Northrop Grumman's Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) during its first flight (© Northrop Grumman Corp.)Lighter-than-air flight systems were developed more than a century ago and, for the most part, were considered obsolete after World War II.

But the military and some commercial ventures have taken up a new generation of hybrid airships that are a far cry from the zeppelins or dirigibles seen in the old black-and-white newsreels -- or even the modern blimps seen floating over sporting events.

Earlier this year the mylar-skinned Aeroscraft, developed by Worldwide Aeros, underwent test flights at a former military base in Orange Country, Calif. According to The Associated Press, NASA and the Pentagon invested $35 million in the aluminum and carbon fiber skeleton prototype, which designers hope can eventually set aircraft records for carrying cargo.

"You could take this vehicle and go to destinations that have been destroyed, where there's no ports, no runways, stuff like that," Aeros mechanical engineer Tim Kenny told AP. "The Aeroscraft could go in there, offload the cargo even if there's no infrastructure, no landing site for it to land on, this vehicle can unload its whole payload."

Aeros is said to be looking for additional funding to build a full-size, 450-foot-long version that can carry 66 tons of cargo.

Funding, however, can be a major challenge. German company Cargolifter went through about $500 million before going out of business in 2002, without even producing a prototype.

The military is considering a wide spectrum of uses for these new aircraft, well beyond those of cost-efficient cargo planes. According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report, the Department of Defense spent about $1.3 billion in fiscal 2012 to develop and acquire numerous aerostats (lighter-than-air platforms that are tethered to the ground) and free-flying airships.

Among the major defense contractors working in this area are Northrop Grumman (NOC), with its Long Endurance Multi Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV, pictured), an unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft that Northrop says can spend three weeks in the air; and Lockheed Martin (LMT), which has developed a multipurpose Hybrid Air Vehicle that can be manned or unmanned and used for both intelligence and transport missions.

But it's not all blue skies for these vehicles. In October, Aviation Week noted LEMV production was months behind and facing issues with its weight and "on-station endurance." It also highlighted other, similar programs that had been shelved or terminated as the Pentagon weighs drastic budget cuts. "Are airships back?" the magazine asked. "Our guess -- maybe not."

Another major challenge for these next-generation airships is the same one their majestic predecessors faced: high winds and extreme weather conditions. But as Scientific American noted in 2011, the world has changed radically since the days of the ill-fated Hindenburg. Advancements in aerodynamics, engine and structural design and materials technology have made modern airships more durable.

"Today's satellite weather forecasts, GPS-tracking, radar, computer-controlled avionics and in-flight management systems," the magazine also notes, "have paved the way for this new wave of hybrid airships."

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