Lockheed Martin landed a contract, on 30th March 2016, to sell 12 Hybrid Airships at $480 million to U.K.-based Straightline Aviation (SLA). The new heavier-than-air airships, called LMH1, will be delivered between 2018 and 2021, by Lockheed’s reseller Hybrid Enterprises.
Measuring 300 feet long and almost 80 feet high, the football stadium-sized airship is filled with helium, which is a nonflammable gas. It can carry 47,000 pounds of cargo and up to 19 passengers to remote and inaccessible areas over 1,400 nautical miles at cruise speeds of 60-80 knots. It can also hover over open water while cargo is being moved in and out. According to Lockheed, the airships are cheaper and environment friendly, compared to other modes of transportation, if at all, feasible in such areas. Lockheed’s sales pitch is ‘No roads, no problems.’
“We’re getting a lot of interest for this, so we think there’s going to be a market,” said Bob Boyd, Lockheed’s program manager for Hybrid Air Systems.
The Hybrid Airship gets 80% of its lift by helium gas and 20% from its aerodynamic tri-lobe design and the thrust of its four propeller engines. Four engines guide the airship to move forward, back, up, or down, whereas the flying altitude is below 10,000 feet in order to make use of the dense air for lift. As for landing, it rests on three cushions which have wheel-like adjustments that spin to hover or grip a surface. At speeds slower than 1400 miles, Boyd says, the ship can fly much farther. “You can actually … go around on one tank of gas.”
And though the flying airship may look like a vulnerable inflated aircraft, Boyd assures us that it can survive bullets. “Lockheed Martin has been a military contractor and knows how to build defensive systems,” says Boyd.
SLA has in-depth experience in airship operations and is specifically an owner-operator of Hybrid Airships. “We are delighted to be first in line with this magnificent aircraft that is going to dramatically change the way cargo is moved around the world,” says Mike Kendrick, SLA co-founder and chief executive officer. “The clear-cut economic and environmental advantages of these Hybrids are attracting vast amounts of attention from a wide-range of potential end users.”
SLA’s executives believe that the heavier-than-air airship is a spectacular development. Even though it is filled with helium, its envelope and airframe weigh it down and it doesn’t need to be moored like a traditional blimp. Its independent landing mechanism by gripping a surface is another attractive feature. Overall, the airship is also stable in windy conditions and becomes easy to operate than a lighter-than-air aircraft.
Ten years ago Lockheed Martin flew a small prototype of the airship called P– 791 in California and over the next decade worked on the project putting in more than one hundred million dollars. For now, delivering commercial cargo to remote areas is the plan but consumer goods could be a market too. For the first time, “Skunk Works,” a division of Lockheed Martin known for developing famous military aircraft like the SR-71 and Stealth Fighter, has built something for the commercial market.
While in remote areas many people use cell phones, they do not have access to goods and services like the developed world. SLA’s CEO Mike Kendrick says, “It can cost up to one billion dollars to put all the infrastructure in for an oil well. There is a real need for this.” That need is to deliver equipment, supplies, and man-power to remote areas without roads, whether it’s oil and gas exploration, mining ventures, underdeveloped regions, or package deliveries.
So far, commercial airships have not really taken off as an industry, except for blimp advertising. So how big is the market? Only the future will tell, but Lockheed is already facing competition from corporations like Aeroscraft and Hybrid Air Vehicles. If the LMH1 succeeds, Lockheed could make even bigger airships. “Eventually we hope to get something that may be as much as a million pounds of cargo and at that scale the cost goes down, so we get significantly more competitive,” said Boyd.