Blimps — those quirky airships that most of us associate with GoodYear advertising — are actually being revived as a viable means of industry transport. Because they are lifted by helium, rather than an engine (as in an airplane), blimps can hover and fly for days with minimal energy expenditure. This makes them a great option for non-passenger air travel — particularly in industries such as logging, oil, and gas where speed is not critical. At least, that’s what the French government believes.
Numerous companies have attempted to make blimps a viable form of air transport over the past 70 years. Until recently, though, technological limitations and a few deadly accidents have made investors reluctant to invest in blimps. Now, a new startup, aptly named “Flying Whales” is on a mission to make blimps a thing again. Backed by French state fund BPI France, which injected 25 million euros this month, AVIC, the Chinese warplane producer, and France’s ONF national forestry office, the project promises likely sales at 5 billion euros over 10 years from a fleet of 150 machines built in factories in France and China.
Flying Whales joins the likes of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, which have also hopped on the blimp revival train. Will these tech giants be able to turn the biggest joke in the skies into a multi-billion dollar endeavor?
To find out, NewtonX turned to a dozen of former employees from Northrop Grumman, Boeing Airbus as well as the 2 leading French startups in the space. The insights in this article are informed by a series of interviews with these experts.
Why This Time Will Be Different
First of all, what exactly is a blimp? Blimps are basically balloons with rudders and propulsion: they are typically nonrigid (although some prototypes today are semi-rigid), and their shape is maintained by the pressure of the lifting gas within. Using lighter-than-air technology, blimps are lifted by helium and stay buoyant through ballonets, which act like ballast tanks holding air (which is heavier than helium). When the blimp takes off, the pilot vents air from the ballonets through the air valves. Blimps move forward using propellers, and many of those in development today combine lighter-than-air technology with more traditional methods in a hybrid model. For instance, Lockheed Martin’s blimp has four engines, each powering its own propeller, that are mounted on the sides and the rear of the hull. It uses helium for only about eighty percent of the airship’s lift — the rest comes from the aerodynamic form of the body. Flying Whales uses diesel and electrically-powered engines that it claims make its energy consumption lower than competitors’.
Blimps had a major fallout in public perception in 1937 when a German passenger airship (Hindenburg) caught fire while it was attempting to dock. Of the 97 people aboard the blimp, 36 died. The disaster was captured on video and photographed, and the images were widely broadcast, inspiring horror in viewers.
“Hindenburg is almost completely responsible for the fallout of blimps,” explained a former employee with Northrop Grumman. “The reality is, though, that blimps have always had great potential for transport to and from remote areas.”
Indeed, one of the primary benefits of blimps is their precise vertical landing (no runway/airport needed). This allows them to travel to areas that aren’t equipped with modern transportation infrastructure (much of the world’s areas with the richest natural resources).
The reason that this benefit has become of increasing interest is twofold: first, 9/11 spawned a new generation of surveillance blimps, which provided blimp developers with a brand new cash infusion for developing prototypes. The Department of Defense has spent more than a billion dollars on at least eight airship programs, with the intent of both surveillance and haulers that could move troops and supplies to remote locations. Second, blimps provide a ‘green’ route to remote natural resources and greater connectivity in general. Imagine, for instance, that entire harvests are transported by blimp, or even that 3D printed homes could be delivered, whole and intact, to other countries (a very real possibility, with Chinese companies, for one, already investing in exporting 3D printed houses and even office buildings internationally).
The three barriers to this becoming a reality have traditionally been:
- Weather (blimps have very high exposure to air current, winds, or violent pressure changes due to their surface)
- Technology (in 2002, an airship by Cargolifter AG that was being built for a 160 ton payload never materialized because of technical complexities — the 19 million cubic-foot hangar has since been transformed into an amusement park).
The Moment For Blimps Has Come According To The Experts
While all three aforementioned barriers still exist, recent developments have made surmounting these barriers highly likely. For one, onboard satellite systems ensure blimps can now avoid storms, fly around them, or hover somewhere and wait hence bypassing the weather concern. Cost and technology are linked — overcoming technological barriers when it comes to blimps is extremely expensive (the previously mentioned Cargolifter AG cost upwards of $300M according to one NewtonX insider, despite never actually being built).
“We’ve been on the cusp of using lighter-than-air technology for cargo transport for years,” explained a former Lockheed Martin employee. “The problem has been directing the necessary funds to crossing that line.”
In 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives set up the bipartisan Cargo Airship Caucus, with the goal of accelerating development. The intent of the project is to develop blimps that can deliver cargo faster than an ocean liner and more cost-effectively than an airplane. “We’re not there yet,” said the former Lockheed Martin employee. “To be truly cost-effective the airship would need to have a 700+ ton payload. It’s certainly possible, and we’re getting there, but it’s not happening today.”
Despite this, the amount of interest and money being funneled into developing lighter-than-air cargo airships means that this certainly will happen. Numerous countries are in an arms race to develop the first cost-effective blimp, and with millions of dollars and optimistic engineers, the time of the blimp is certainly right around the corner.
More than half of the world’s land area has no access to pave roads. Modern lighter-than-air technology could act like trucking in the sky, giving access to global resources and populations.