France-based Voliris has been experimenting with airships since 2001, and in 2008, the company began an R&D program to develop hybrid airships. After numerous prototypes and attempts, the company achieved the proof of concept with the V902RC hybrid airship, which also showed success with piloted test flights.
In doing so, the company landed in the Guinness Book of World Records for creating the smallest airship in the world.
Thanks to the success of this smaller airship, which has an 80 m3 volume, now the company is building similar and larger airships with a 25,000 m3 volume, which could transport 40-foot containers in desert areas.
“The airship is called NATAC for Navette Aérienne de Transport Automatique de Containers. The translation in English is Automatic Air Shuttle for the Transport of Containers,” says Arnaud Siegel, technical manager for Voliris. “The structure uses buoyancy and aerodynamic lift and has STOL [short take-off and landing] configuration.”
The airship can fly 500 km maximum, land and dispatch the fret, then come back without refueling.
“It’s very important to insist that it’s an automatic system; it means that anybody can have the control on the flight, or the control of the airship,” Siegel says. “Whereas for classis UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), there is a pilot on the ground who can pilot the UAV. For security issue, we do not want that a person can change the mission.”
For the maximum distance (500 km), the average flight time is five hours (range 500 km and speed more than 100 km per hour).
Helium gas, which is lighter than air, lifts most of the structure (envelope, tail, metal structure, landing gear, etc.) and the aerodynamic mechanism lifts the payload (container) and fuel, says Siegel. Kerosene is also a unique fuel that’s involved.
“It’s steered exactly like a plane, with pitch, bend and roll–thanks to the horizontal and vertical tailfins,” he says. “It uses two Turboprop 5000 hp (for propulsion), like a regional aircraft.”
The airship requires two people to control the operating system on the ground for take off and landing but there is no pilot (or passengers).
It can fly at an altitude of 3,000 meters and can attain a speed of 150 km/h. It’s not like a helicopter. It doesn’t have VTOL (vertical take-off and landing), as it takes off in an 800-meter unprepared airstrip. It can land on any surface that isn’t water.
As for wind speed, on the ground it can fasten on its mast at 80 knots (150km/h), and while flying, it depends on the mission, but it can take off and land with 30 knots (55kmh). However, the company plans not to fly in rain or severe winds.
“It could resist on the ground to severe conditions,” he says. “We do not need a hangar to protect it. We have a mast. Besides, we assemble and disassemble the airship in the place of the mission.”
The cost of the airship program is 300 million euros, and one NATAC costs about 10 million euros.
Desert areas on our planet stretch for 45 million square kilometers, so Voliris sees a lot of practical applications for its airship and the company expects to sell close to 2,000 units over the next 20 years, with the main target being north of Africa, North America, and Russia.
“The container is carried between the rigid structure and it can lift 30.4 tons and a 40-foot container,” Siegel says. “It can be utilized in any desert area where these is no infrastructure.”
Currently, there are no rules and regulations in place for this sort of aircraft, and the company has no plans to certify it as of yet. Siegel notes there are no regulatory requirements because such aircraft don’t exist, so the company will need to build them and test them and write all the regulatory requirements.
“We just need the authorization of the government in place,” Siegel says. “We want to manufacture all the parts of the airship in France. We put everything into ten containers to deliver the airship. We assemble the airship on site, use it for the mission with the authorization of the government, and disassemble the airship, putting all the parts in containers to send them to another mission.”
Youtube video: Flight of the smallest airship.