The world’s largest air vehicle, a hybrid airship that could be the first step in transforming logistics for mines and other businesses in remote areas, is preparing for its inaugural flight.
Bedfordshire-based Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) is preparing to launch the civil test programme for its Airlander 10 craft in the next two months.
Unlike conventional airships, the craft uses multiple helium-filled hulls, rather than a single hull, according to the firm’s business development director for commercial markets, Andy Barton.
This gives it far greater lift capacity and also enables it to be loaded and unloaded like a conventional aircraft. Traditional airships must be tied down and loaded and unloaded slowly and carefully to maintain the same level of buoyancy.
The Airlander 10, measuring 92m in length, can carry up to 10 tonnes of cargo at a maximum speed of 90mph – compared to the world’s largest conventional aircraft the Antonov 225, which measures 84m.
It was originally developed to carry out surveillance missions for the US military, as its high lift capacity enables it to stay airborne for up to three weeks with a one tonne payload, compared to five days for a traditional airship with a similar payload.
HAV says the Airlander 10 is ideal for carrying outsize loads, such as blades for wind turbines, to places such as northern Sweden where there are few asphalt roads.
But HAV believes its big brother – the Airlander 50 – which is currently in the design phase and is an estimated three years away from flying, will revolutionise logistics in far-flung locations.
Like the Airlander 10 its engines can direct thrust in multiple directions, which helps it take off and land vertically, ensuring it only needs an area of flat ground rather than expensive facilities.
The Airlander 50 will have a cargo payload of 60 tonnes at ranges under 500km or 50 tonnes for longer trans oceanic flights, compared to a 102 tonne payload for a Boeing 777 cargo aircraft.
“At the moment many of the mines in areas such as northern Canada depend on ice roads which are only open for about six weeks of the year for receiving around 100,000 tonnes of supplies annually,” Barton said.
Only in these six weeks is the ground frozen sufficiently hard to bear the weight of heavy vehicles.
However, the Airlander 50 would be able to bring in supplies at any time of year at a cost of around 50 US cents per tonne per km. This compares to an estimated cost of around 80 US cents per tonne per km to use unasphalted roads.
“It’s going to mean ‘bye-bye ice roads’,” said Barton, especially as the hybrid airship bypasses the ecological difficulties that often go with building dirt tracks through wilderness areas.
Barton says that in much of Africa, South America and Asia, as well as the north of North America and Siberia, there are few asphalted roads away from the coasts and outside the connections between major cities.
It is these remote areas where he believes HAV’s next craft will revolutionise logistics with its ability to transport goods and supplies at a lower financial and ecological cost than road transport.