Should Airships Make a Comeback?Sep 10, 2023
- Airships seem like a bad idea. Exhibit A. (bright, happy music) - It is the greatest of miracles that anyone came out of the disaster alive. - The Hindenberg was filled with more than 200 million liters of hydrogen, but it also had an outer layer of iron oxide and aluminum powder, two of the ingredients that
makeup thermite, a mixture that undergoes such an exothermic reaction that it is used to weld train tracks together. But even if blimps weren't giant sacks of flammable gas encased in questionable coatings, they'd still seem like a bad idea because they're big and slow.
But right now, a handful of companies around the world are racing to build a new generation of
airships. So why do they do it? I came across the following argument on a blog by Eli Dourado and found it compelling, so I wanted to explore it. Think about how goods, all different types of things, are transported across the US. A lot of money is spent moving things by plane, but this doesn't translate to a large volume of goods because air transport is really expensive. It's the fastest way to get something from one place to another, but you pay a premium for that speed.
If you want to save money, you can transport your goods on ships that use the waterways in and around the country, but it will be much slower. Still, because it is significantly cheaper, a lot more goods are transported this way and more money is generally spent on it. Rail offers an even better option. It is faster than ships and cheaper than planes, so more goods are shipped by train than by air and water combined. But by far the way most goods are transported across the United States is by truck. The interesting thing about this is that trucks are not as fast as planes, they take several days to cross the country.
They are not as cheap as ships either, but the combination of speed and price puts them in this sweet spot of being cheap and fast enough, which is why they carry the vast majority of goods. They are like porridge for bears in terms of transportation options, perfect. Let us now consider how goods are transported internationally. The only options are planes and ships. Again, a lot of money is spent shipping goods by air, but because it is so expensive, the actual volume of goods is low. And most goods, both in terms of dollars and weight, are shipped by ocean freight.
But what if there was a third option? Faster than ships and cheaper than planes? It seems likely that most customers will prefer this new truck-like method of transportation. Airships could be this option. (bright, happy music) They could be the trucks from heaven. (bright upbeat music) They would transport cargo across oceans in about a week instead of a month for freighters. And, in theory, they would be several times cheaper than shipping goods by air. And they would achieve all this while emitting significantly fewer emissions than airplanes. See, while planes get their lift from their wings and therefore need to burn a lot of jet fuel just to stay airborne, aircraft get their lift effectively and for free.
The buoyancy of lighter-than-air gas keeps them airborne, so they don't need to move forward to stay airborne. As a result, modern airship manufacturers estimate that
airshipscan reduce carbon emissions by 90% or more. But for blimps to become the trucks of the sky, they would have to carry a lot of weight and historically, that hasn't been a particular strong point of blimps, but that's where physics comes into play. The lift of an airship depends on the light volume of an air gas it contains, so lift is proportional to the radius cubed. While the resistance depends on a combination of the cross section and the married area, that is basically the surface area of the ship.
So it is proportional to the radius squared. This means that the larger an aircraft is, the more efficient it will become. Lift increases proportionally to the radius cubed, while drag only increases proportional to the radius squared. So there is a cube squared advantage for larger aircraft. Do you want to increase the performance of your airship? We will simply double its size. The surface area is multiplied by four and the volume by eight. Then its lift and drag ratio doubles. If that's not enough, just duplicate it again. To
makeairships the trucks of the sky, we would need to build the largest airships the world has ever seen.
There are three different types of airships. The first is an airship, which is basically a balloon with a gondola and engines attached. Like a balloon, it is overpressurized to maintain its shape. Therefore, the skin of an airship is in constant tension. As the blimp gets larger, this tension increases. Additionally, larger blimps are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their shape. So you can't expand airships forever. The second option is semi-rigid. Like a blimp, the hull is still in tension, but there is now additional structural support to maintain the shape. The last variety is a rigid body airship.
These have an internal structure to maintain their shape. Inside the hull, there are a series of gas cells filled with a lifting gas such as hydrogen or helium. In this case, the gas cells are not overpressurized, so enlarging them is not a problem. The best thing about rigid airships is that they don't have the same scale limits. Do you want a bigger blimp? Just enlarge the structure and add some additional gas bags. In fact, the weight of the structure actually decreases as a fraction of the total weight, so rigid blimps scale even better than cubed squares.
Therefore, this last option is the most suitable for the cargo market. And that is what Eli proposes: building a 388-meter-long rigid airship to conquer the cargo market, it would be capable of transporting 500 tons of goods at a speed of 90 kilometers per hour. That's enough to transport two Statues of Liberty at the speed you're driving down the highway. If built, it would be by far the largest aircraft, both in size and weight, that it could carry. Not bad for an airship. But to capture a significant share of the cargo market, you don't need just one airship, you need a fleet of thousands of goods constantly moving around the world.
And if they corner more than half of the ocean freight container market at a price comparable to trucks, say 10 cents per ton-kilometer, that would equate to $650 billion in revenue per year. And if all of that was taken care of by a single company, it would be the largest company in the world by revenue. Bigger than Apple, Amazon or Walmart. So who is building these monstrous airships? Well, no one at the moment. This part of the video is sponsored by odoo.com. Like airships, many of our dream projects can be difficult to get off the ground, but the first step is always the same: you just have to get started.
And whether you want to start a business, a blog, or a sideline, an easy way to get started is to launch your own website. This signals to the world and to yourself that you are really doing this. And if you want a quick, free and easy way to launch your own website, check out this sponsor video, odoo.com. Just answer a few simple questions, select your favorite theme, and then the powerful Odoo software will create the main website for you. Then you just go to any block and change it. Do you want to add an image?
Just select the image block and drag it where you want. Next, click Replace to swap it with one of your own images, or if you don't have an image, simply choose one of your free-to-use images. Adding a new page is also very easy. Simply click New and add a page and then drag and drop the blocks you want and you're done. With Odoo, creating your own website is a piece of cake. On top of that, Odoo also offers everything from accounting to email marketing applications that can be easily integrated with your website. With Odoo, your first app is free for life, including unlimited hosting and support, and a free custom domain name for one year.
So head over to odoo.com/r/veritasium or click the link in the description to start creating your own website today. I want to thank Odoo for sponsoring today's show. While cargo transportation is probably the largest market for airships, it is also driven by fierce competition and low margins. And that's not ideal when you need to spend a lot of money to build, develop and certify your aircraft first. What is wanted is a market with less competition and better margins. This is the Airlander 10 and it is built by the British company Hybrid Air Vehicles. Can you tell me about the intended use of the Airlander? - They will have an extraordinary experiential vacation.
So, going to the North Pole, going on a safari, crossing the Amazon, knowing that they have almost no environmental impact, being able to travel in some luxury and seeing things that simply can't be done any other way. - The first trips are planned no later than 2026. If you want to take this trip, you better start saving because getting a cabin for two will cost you about $200,000. And while some companies focus on luxury travel markets, others plan to take advantage of another unique advantage of airships. Think about what it typically takes to move things. Trucks need roads, ships need water and ports, trains need railways and stations, and planes need long runways and airports.
Blimps, on the other hand, require very little infrastructure. The most important thing they need is a reasonably flat surface to land on, such as grass, sand, ice, or even water. And it is this unique capability that allows them to deliver goods where no truck, ship, train or plane can reach. Airships can connect parts of the world that have always been disconnected, like remote towns in Canada or Alaska, and they can do so with little or no infrastructure. Or what if roads, railways and ports have been destroyed by a natural disaster? Urgent help is needed to find and support survivors, but there appears to be no way to get there and no means of communication once there.
Well, then aircraft could rush to the scene to bring rescue workers and supplies or to provide cell service from the sky. Disaster relief missions like these are what LTA Research, which is backed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, is focused on, and they are making great progress. Its current prototype, Pathfinder 1, has completed multiple indoor flight tests and is scheduled to fly outdoors sometime in the coming months. They plan to take the lessons they learn from these tests and build a series of aircraft that can provide aid in disaster-affected areas. Other times, there may be roads available, but what you're transporting simply isn't compatible with roads like long, clunky, fragile turbine blades.
Getting them from the factory to the destination requires careful planning and perfectly choreographed maneuvers, and this process is what often limits the size of wind turbines. Airships don't have that problem, they can simply mount turbine blades of any size on the bottom and transport them to the destination. Therefore, it is much faster, simpler and allows for the construction of more powerful wind turbines. Additionally, aircraft can also easily transport other structures that are difficult to move. But sometimes, instead of delivering goods, it is necessary to pick them up. France is full of natural resources like wood, but many of their forests cannot be reached by truck, so they cannot extract the wood they have cut down.
The French company Flying Whales, backed by the French government, hopes to change this situation. They are developing this 200 meter long cargo ship that is capable of carrying a payload of 60 tons. It was designed to be able to float over remote forests and collect logs that could then be transported and turned into lumber. But loading and unloading from the sky comes with significant problems. To start, you need to make sure that your aircraft stays still during this process, which is harder than it seems. - So a very large airship has what we call the sail effect. Even a relatively light wind current, when multiplied over a really large area, will have a huge effect, making aircraft difficult to control, especially close to the ground and at low speeds.
That's why they are a little difficult to handle. - To overcome this, the airship is equipped with propellers around the hull that can stabilize it. But this still limits the use of most airships to places with stable climates. A bigger problem arises from the reasonfundamental reason why airships work in the first place. And this problem is especially serious for large cargo airships. You see, when an aircraft carries a heavy load, the combined weight of the load and the aircraft is offset by lift. The problem arises when you drop that heavy load because now the aircraft is suddenly much lighter and that's why it wants to shoot into the sky.
Then you need some way to prevent that from happening. - Unless we can solve that problem, we are as good as dead in terms of cargo aircraft. - Some methods have been proposed to solve this problem. The simplest is to decrease lift by venting the lift gas. The only problem is that most modern airships use helium. And to offset, say, 60 tons of weight, it would be necessary to release about 54,000 cubic meters of helium, which costs a few hundred thousand dollars. Not to mention that helium is scarce, so venting it isn't really a practical option. Now, propellers could be used to push the aircraft down, but that ends up burning so much fuel that it negates much of the advantage of using aircraft in the first place. - The real dream has been to compress and decompress the gas that rises because you take a gas that rises and when it is in gaseous form, it rises.
When it's compressed, it's a drag, it's heavy, but there are some real problems with that. So you're talking about a very large aircraft with a very large volume of lift gas, now you need a compressor that is capable of compressing a huge amount of gas very quickly and that's just a technological problem that we haven't really developed. - Until then, the short-term solution is to replace the weight you are releasing. So if you are dropping 60 tons of supplies, you will need to pick up 60 tons of ballast. If you want to collect 60 tons of wood, you would have to transport 60 tons of, say, water on board and drop it at the pickup location.
But there is another innovative way to solve this problem and it is the secret behind how the Airlander 10 works. It is based on a combination of lift from helium and aerodynamic lift created by its hull. - We can lift the entire weight of the plane with the helium inside so that effectively, when you are flying, it weighs nothing. - And the aerodynamic lift is there only to lift the payload. - So, if we have, say, 100 people on board, we take off like a conventional airplane, only at very low speed and we generate aerodynamic lift to lift those people.
The advantage then is that when we hit the ground and those people get off, we don't float away because we use aerodynamic lift that can be turned on and off. - While hybrid airships work well for relatively light payloads, they are not ideal for transporting heavy payloads over long distances because the advantage of using free lift to carry all that weight would be lost. So for large cargo aircraft, the current best solution to the cargo sharing problem is to replace the weight that is being released. But there are more difficult problems you need to overcome to convert airships into sky trucks.
Look, no one had ever built a 388 meter long airship before. So how do you do it? Well, airships are usually built with huge hangers to protect them from the elements. But the largest airship hangar ever built was only 360 meters long. Then it wouldn't even fit. And since you need to build thousands of these aircraft, you have to find a way to magically build dozens of fragile aircraft outdoors or build many, many of the largest hangars in the world. As if this were not enough, there is also another problem that must be solved: each of these airships must be filled with more than a million cubic meters of lifting gas.
Which raises the age-old question: is hydrogen or helium used? - Helium is very expensive and has less lifting capacity, right? Hydrogen is very cheap but it will kill you. - After the Hindenburg caught fire in less than 40 seconds, the choice seemed obvious. Only inert helium
shouldbe used in airships. The Federal Aviation Administration agreed and hydrogen as a lift gas has been banned for many years. But what many people don't know is that of the 97 people on board, more than 60 miraculously survived. A few years earlier, another airship, the USS Akron, crashed off the coast of New Jersey, killing 73 of the 76 people on board.
And that aircraft was full of helium. So maybe the problem wasn't that hydrogen airships were inherently unsafe, maybe we just didn't know how to build safe airships. I mean, we didn't know how to build safe airplanes either and now they are one of the safest ways to travel. And for any plan that includes building and filling thousands of large-scale airships, hydrogen is the only realistic option because helium is too scarce and expensive. Hydrogen, on the other hand, is easy to produce, cheap and provides about 8% more lift. And then there is the question of certification. - In general, certifying any new aircraft is a really long and expensive process.
If you're talking about certifying a blimp, you're not just talking about a new aircraft, you're talking about a completely new type of aircraft. No one has ever certified a large rigid blimp. - Combine that with building the largest airplane the world has ever seen and filling it with huge amounts of a highly flammable gas and you have another pretty big challenge. But all these problems may not even matter because it may not be possible to build a 500-ton cargo ship of that size. - I mean, the most important thing about an aircraft structure is that it has to be light, it has to be robust, it has to be strong, it has to have really good structural integrity, but it has to be light enough to take off. or it doesn't make sense.
And at a certain point of size, the weight that you need to add to create the structural integrity that you need to operate safely, you know, you get to a point where those curves just intersect in a bad way. Therefore, there is a structural size limitation due to weight issues. - How big is that size? We are not sure. What we do know is that several companies around the world are currently developing and building the next generation of airships. For now, none of them intend to develop sky trucks. Instead, they are focusing on areas where airships have a clear advantage; markets with less competition and decent margins.
Who knows, maybe as blimps mature, a company will take the leap and set out to develop these sky trucks. It certainly won't be easy, but the reward could be huge. Do you think we will see a future where we will have these aircraft roaming all over our skies? - I know it may seem crazy but we really do it. - It won't be long, long before we can see some things in the sky that will make many people, including me, have big smiles and a lot of nostalgia for the great aircraft of the past. - It is very difficult to break into the world with something new for which the world is not prepared.
I mean, there are a lot of other things that have become normal after a while. And there is no reason why this
shouldnot be so. - I hope that when that day comes someone invites me to stop by and at least take a look, if not take a ride in it. (soft upbeat music)
If you have any copyright issue, please Contact