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BlimpsA very big concept lifts off
In 2010, a group of defense contractors led by Northrop Grumman received a contract from the U.S. Department of Defense to create a so-called Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) — a super-sized surveillance aircraft that had the capability of spending days in the air on a single mission. The first test flight of the Airlander took place in August 2012. In 2013, however, budget cuts led to the cancellation of the project, and U.K.-based Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), which was part of contractors group, bought the Airlander back from the DoD at effectively scrap value. So the Airlander came back to the United Kingdom, where it lives in a giant hangar in Cardington, Bedfordshire. It is there because it is the only place in the United Kingdom that can house it, having been built for airship manufacture in 1915. HAH has big plans for it.
It is bigger than a football field, making it the world’s largest aircraft (about sixty feet longer than an Airbus A380). It is a mixture of airplane, airship, helicopter, and hovercraft. It is greener and quieter than other air transport. A larger version is already in prototype. It is all being designed and built in Bedfordshire.
The helium-filled Airlander is the creation of Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), a seven-year-old company which itself was born out of decades of British innovation and research in Lighter Than Air (LTA) craft.
A Release from Business Is Great Britain reports that HAV was able to make the step from initial prototype to the manufacture and test flight thanks to a 2010 contract from the U.S. Department of Defense. Led by Northrop Grumman, the aim was to create a so-called Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) — a super-sized surveillance aircraft that had the capability of spending days in the air on a single mission.
The first test flight of the Airlander took place in August 2012. In 2013, however, budget cuts led to the cancellation of the project. HAV bought it back from the DoD at effectively scrap value.
“We remain on very good terms with the U.S. Department of Defense,” says HAV’s communications director Chris Daniels. “We continue to share data with them and we expect our dialogue to bear fruit in the future.”
So the Airlander came back to the United Kingdom, where it lives in a giant hangar in Cardington, Bedfordshire. It is there because it is the only place in the United Kingdom that can house it, having been built for airship manufacture in 1915.
At present, Airlander 10 can carry up to ten tons and can stay airborne for up to five days. It is envisaged that Airlander 10 might be used for surveillance and communications, for filming, research and survey work.
However, there is (literally) a bigger picture. HAV’s aim is to transform and disrupt the cargo market by building a craft that will be able to carry 50 tons — the Airlander 50.
This enormous construction will be able to transport goods and equipment literally to all corners of the earth. It can land on water, desert or ice, enabling access to remote and inaccessible places, from the jungles of Africa to the icy terrain of Canada.
This because Airlander 50 transforms a key metric for transportation: the cost per ton kilometer (that is, the amount it costs to carry one ton over one kilometer). For example, a mining company could slash the costs of transporting ore from a remote mine to a processing plant.
By delivering point to point, it will also reduce the frictional costs of transportation. The more borders and ports through which a cargo has to pass, the more it incurs bureaucracy and paperwork and, in many cases, the greater possibility of spoilage and theft of goods. Airlander will be able to travel from source to site. And its environmental credentials mean that it can claim to be the greenest form of cargo transport.
Funding for prototyping
It is for the prototyping and broad technological development of Airlander 50 that HAV secured £2.5 million from Innovate UK alongside investment from a group of private investors.
The development is being led by HAV with other British firms including avionics experts Bluebear Systems and materials company Forward Composites and specialist teams from Cranfield, Liverpool, and Sheffield universities.
Funding to unlock private investment
Hybrid Air Vehicles has also been the recipient of a significant grant from the Regional Growth Fund, in one of fifty-six new awards announced on 12 February 2015.
“We are delighted to have received RGF funding,” says Stephen McGlennan, CEO of HAV. “The commitment of the UK Government to our business is vital, and this will ensure we fly our innovative Airlander aircraft and enter the commercial market. To achieve this we need to create jobs, and the RGF grant immediately helps us to do this.”