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Cargo carriers see blimps in their futures.


Look up to the sky two years from now and you may see a new phenomenon passing overhead. It will be the Hybrid Air Vehicle (HAV) and what could be the air cargo freighter of the future. A vast, lighter-than-air dirigible, it will be capable of carrying up to 200 tonnes at a fraction of the fuel cost of conventional cargo aircraft.

No, this is not some piece of April foolery. A major carrier is on the verge of signing a contract for an entire fleet of these new craft.

The concept has been developed by a team of British scientists, who have established their research and development facility at a site north of London where the first British airships, the R100 and R101, were built and flown more than 80 years ago. The two original hangars for these huge craft are still standing and, at more than 190 feet high and 800 feet long, continue to dominate the local skyline. But that was an era epitomized by the German Zeppelin airships and the catastrophic fire that ripped through the Hindenburg in New Jersey in 1937, which effectively ended further development of the airship age.

What has changed since that bygone era? Just about everything, according to Gordon Taylor, marketing manager for HAV. "What we have done is to entirely re-examine the basic principles behind the science of lighter-than-air vehicles and applied modern technology and materials to the concept," he said. The company has come up with a mix and match of technologies that incorporate modern aerodynamics, vectored engine thrust, lighter-than-air design and the principle of hovercraft engineering.

"It is why we are calling it a hybrid because it really does reflect every modern technology available to us," Taylor said.

Hybrid Air Vehicles has built a scale prototype of the craft, which could soon be floating across the skies in a fully scaled-up version. Its buoyancy will be provided by a huge ultra-lightweight structure made of super polyester. It will be powered by rotating engine plants, which will adopt the hovercraft principle to anchor the craft to the ground when landing and will allow a near vertical take-off.

Perhaps most significantly, the reborn airship will not be filled with highly flammable hydrogen, which was the downfall of its predecessors. Instead it will be filled with a mix of 60 percent helium and 40 percent air.

What Hybrid Air Vehicles has been waiting for is a launch customer to really lift its project off the ground and into the air. Cue the U.S. Department of Defense, which has been sufficiently impressed with the modern-day concept to award a $517 million contract to build a 300-foot-long craft, which will be used for surveillance work in Afghanistan.

Working on a tight schedule with U.S. defense contractor Northrop Grumman, the company must build a vehicle that is capable of staying aloft for 21 days at a time and can be flown with or without a three-man crew. The craft is scheduled to enter service in early 2012.

"We are going to be building the basic structure, including the payload module, the fuel tanks, the four engines, the propulsion ducts and bow thrusters," Taylor said. "These parts will then be flown to Arizona to be incorporated into the envelope, which will form the main body structure."

After highly sensitive surveillance equipment has been fitted by Northrop Grumman, flight testing will be undertaken in the U.S. before the HAV is flown across the North Atlantic to be pre-positioned in the UK, prior to call up to its Afghanistan theater of operation. "That will be the first time an airship has flown across the Atlantic since the heyday of the Zeppelins in the 1930s," Taylor said.

The modern-day hybrid airships may have eliminated the risk of fire from hydrogen, but what about ground fire when operating in Afghanistan?

"Helium is an inert gas, so it will not explode," he said. "What we have also discovered is that the pressure inside the envelope is so low that if a hole is made, say by a bullet, the air seeps out very slowly without any catastrophic effect."

What of the commercial prospects for the air ships? Hybrid Air Vehicles already has designs on the drawing board for craft capable of carrying payloads of between 20 and 200 tonnes. It is a design concept that can easily be extracted to allow craft carrying up to 1,000 tonnes.

"We see two principle markets for the commercial operation of the H AV," Taylor said. "The first would see the vehicle operating in a pure freighter role; the second would be in the heavylift arena, particularly linked to oilfield development work."

Typically, a major logistics service provider could employ HAVs to maintain supply chains in, say, the auto sector. "What we are providing is the opportunity to offer deferred airfreight service at the cost equivalent of seafreight," Taylor said.

In the heavylift market, Taylor's company is already in close negotiations with a couple of major oil outfits to provide lift capability, with one company expected to place orders for four craft. "The other company sees the potential to use the craft to develop new oilfields," Taylor said. "It would avoid the need to build roads and other infrastructure requirements to reach these often remote sites."

Intriguingly, it is in its commercial role that Taylor says the company is tantalizingly close to signing a contract with a major airline to acquire a fleet of HAVs operating with a payload capability in the 20- to 50-tonne range.

"We expect to sign a contract in June and will then have two years in which to deliver the first craft," Taylor said. "The order would be in the double-digits and the craft used to augment a carrier's existing operations."

Taylor remains tight-lipped about the potential buyer, revealing only that it is a non-U.S., publicly listed company that currently operates more than 100 aircraft.

"We really do see a big potential in the freighter market," Taylor said. "One of these craft could easily fly between China and Europe in three days at a quarter to half the fuel cost of conventional aircraft and without the need to operate airport to airport, saving further on time and handling costs."
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Title Annotation:world news: EUROPE
Comment:Cargo carriers see blimps in their futures.(world news: EUROPE)
Publication:Air Cargo World, International ed.
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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