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New hybrid airships prepare to take flight

  • New high-tech hybrids promise a new era for airships
  • Marrying lift of helium with the aerodynamic lift of an airplane transforms possibilities for airships
  • Hybrids could help transport heavy cargo long distances and help humanitarian aid efforts

London (CNN) -- If you thought airships were old hat, think again.

A new breed of hybrid airships are preparing to take off raising hopes that a 21st century fleet can finally succeed the zeppelins of yesteryear.

The difference is radical says Michael Stewart, chief executive of World SkyCat Ltd, a British company which has designed a new air vehicle, the SkyLiner.

"The breakthrough is to combine the airplane with the airship, creating a hybrid," Stewart said.

Marrying the lift provided by the (lighter-than-air) helium with the aerodynamic lift of an airplane transforms everything, he says.

Two thrusters on either side of a laminated fabric shell afford control at low speeds, while other features do away with the need for a ground crew when the hybrid needs to land.

"An airship of our kind, carrying let's say 200 tons or more, with its air-cushioned landing system is able to land without any runways -- on tundra and semi-rough ground," Stewart said.

Unquestionably, the big market will be in cargo. One is regular freight, where you're essentially competing with 747s
--Michael Stewart, World SkyCat Ltd

A few years ago, SkyCat tested a prototype (the "Sky Kitten") and want to start building models capable of carrying payloads of 50 tons, rising to 1,000 tons.

So far though, it's been a hard slog securing financial backing.

"Unlike conventional airships, where a few million dollars will get you into the air, hybrids cost hundreds of millions to build," Stewart said.

Undaunted, he points to recent orders secured by rival company, UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd who last year won a contract to build a similar hybrid airship for the U.S. military contractor Northrop Grumman.

The $517 million "Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle" (LEMV) is longer than a football field and will provide high altitude (20,000 feet) surveillance for U.S. troops in Afghanistan by 2012.

But Stewart believes these hybrids' unique strengths are better served elsewhere.

"Unquestionably, the big market will be in cargo. One is regular freight, where you're essentially competing with 747s. And there are other markets to exploit where there is no alternative to the hybrid," he said.

Land which is inaccessible by all other modes of transport would be open to hybrid air vehicles opening up opportunities to mine for natural resources in remote regions or help with humanitarian missions.

Running costs are low too. Stewart estimates a 50-ton payload vehicle would cost around $1,500 per hour for fuel, maintenance and crew.

These new airships are also attracting the attention of more established names in aviation.

In 2008, Boeing announced it was teaming up with SkyHook to develop a heavy duty lifting vehicle.

Part blimp, part helicopter, the SkyHook JHL-40 aircraft is capable of transporting a 40-ton sling load up to 200 miles, Boeing says.

And an Australia-based company is developing an air crane called SkyLifter which it describes as a "vertical pick-up and delivery aircraft" capable of carrying 150 tons.

Steve Prince, publisher of Air Cargo World, says these new types of hybrid airship could find a place in the air cargo market in the years to come, but not as a regularly scheduled operation.

"Its future is in charter and ad hoc type of operations for special projects that require the cargo to be delivered to areas that are not easily accessible, if they are accessible at all -- areas where airports don't exist or roadways cannot support the project's development," Prince said.


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