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High times ahead for airships

By Dean Irvine for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- At best you would probably associate airships with enormous floating advertisements, at worst, the Hindenburg disaster, but what might seem a form of transportation from another era is currently undergoing a re-launch. From high-altitude surveillance to a hybrid luxury cruise liner, our skies may soon be home to the next generation of multi-purpose airship.

Traditional helium blimps or airships seem slow and bumbling in comparison to modern jets and seem to have little place in our world when time is of the essence. But one independent company does not see them that way.

Worldwide Aeros Corp. are developing a new vehicle. Called the Aeroscraft it is unlike anything else in the sky, with a rigid structure and aerodynamic designs that could provide luxury passenger travel and super-sized cargo freighters of the future.

"We're developing the Aeroscraft as a commercial vehicle, one that can carry commercial cargo with point-to-point delivery," Edward Pevzner, business development manager for Aeros Aeronautical Systems, told CNN.

As a concept, airships seem perfect for the task of solving some heavy problems such as carrying cargo to remote areas with little or no infrastructure.

They have short take off and landing capabilities and so do not require a runway and have the capacity to carry large amounts of equipments. This is thanks to their design, which means bigger is better.

If an airship's length is doubled, the surface area, and therefore the weight goes up by four times, while its lifting capacity (volume) rises by eight. While the theory is good in practice, there are problems with traditional helium filled airships lifting heavy weights.

Unless there is a form of ballast, an airship, traditionally lighter than air because of the helium, is just going to be pulled down if it attempts to haul goods up into its payload.

"There have been plenty of models to deal with this problem, but nearly all are completely unworkable. Ideas of using water, either jettisoning some or taking more onboard, are really unworkable -- what if you're in a land-locked country? Using ballast to manage an airship just gives you more headaches than anything else," said Pevzner.

The solution: the Aeroscraft, a heavier-than-air vehicle, unlike traditional airships, with a revolutionary way to manage helium. The gas makes up only 70 percent of vehicle, and as well as providing the means to load and unload heavy equipment it can be managed to react to outside conditions, payload weight or even passenger movement inside.

Enormous rear-mounted propellers provide the rest of the lift, maneuverability and Pevzner estimates the top speed of these future monsters of the sky to be around 140 mph.

It's a far sight from the blimps floating over sporting events at a sedate 20 mph, and so different in its design that the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority has classified it as a new type of airborne vehicle.

As a concept super cruise liner, it would be able to hover over landmarks and cities, offering incredible views. It would be a huge sight in the sky as well -- Aeroscraft's biggest designs measure almost 200 meters in length and could carry 500-ton payloads.

This is the top scale size of the Aeroscraft and one that prompted the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's interest with their "Walrus" program. Their wish was for a 500-ton super-freighter that could deploy military equipment and supplies to remote regions without the need for infrastructure such as roads or airports. Their interest may have waned for now, but the smaller model currently being developed is proving that the concepts really work.

Spy in the sky

While the Aeroscraft could change transportation and travel, elsewhere airships are being developed to create a very watchful eye in the sky.

Ron Browning, head of business development of surveillance at Lockheed Martin has been overseeing the High Altitude Airship (HAA) project contracted to them by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

"It's a very science-intense project, which most people don't realize it's not just a case of scaling up what you already have," he told CNN.

The problems that have to be overcome are the environmental conditions: the low air density at an altitude of 65,000 to 70,000 feet, plus the impact the sun's rays has on a helium filled airship at such a height.

Browning and his team have developed a flexible composite envelop that is able to retains it's shape from take off to its position 12 miles up -- the first of its kind.

Powered by solar panels feeding batteries, and later fuel cells once the technology is perfected, it is designed to hover in one position for as long as is necessary. Spying and communications are its primary functions, but there could be others.

"It's designed to always be there and always be on, whatever the mission. There isn't a single configuration for it; it could be homeland security such as watching country boarders or military needs. It can also have sensors mounted on the envelop," said Browning.

Meaning that it could look up and out as well as down, keeping an eye out for any incoming ballistic missiles or satellite-busting weapons, as well as watching what is going on below.

From 12 miles above the Earth's surface there is a horizon diameter of around 750 miles. Twelve HAAs, equipped with high-definition cameras, could keep watch on the whole of the U.S., 24-hours a day, adding another strata to our surveillance society.

If development continues, an ever-watchful eye in the sky and a super-cruise liner or freighter could become reality rather than just a lot of hot air.


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Aeroscraft: the luxury cruise ship of the future?

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