Sunday, February 17, 2013




I have absolutely no idea why I love airships--much as I have no insight as to why I am fascinated by—amongst other things—geodesic domes, high-tech yurts, monorails and FastShips (which are a new type of short, wide, high speed cargo ship designed to fill the gap between fast but expensive air-freight, and slow but less expensive sea-freight). However, clearly I root for the underdog, because these are all marginal areas of technology which—despite their promise—do not seem to have encouraging futures, except possibly, in works of fiction. Of course one never knows. The development of almost any new concept—whatever its merits—tends to be vastly harder than is generally appreciated because it is up against some very powerful forces. The ones that immediately come to mind are vested interests, inertia, ignorance—and lack of money.

In fact, I included an airship sequence in my thriller RULES OF THE HUNT. This was prompted by the very real presence of a Japanese police airship which hovers over Tokyo most of the time—and which is just taken for granted by most people. Presumably, it is packed full of surveillance equipment, but it doesn’t feel intrusive—which is one of the advantages of airships. They can hover, virtually silently, for extended periods of time—days if necessary—high enough to be part of the scenery. In contrast, helicopters are low-flying, noisy, intrusive, extremely expensive to run, and have very limited endurance—typically only two to three hours. All of that said, I will admit that helicopters fascinate me too—and I have faith they can be vastly improved. But, that is another story.

The compromise, where surveillance is concerned, would appear to be drones which are evolving so fast they are rather hard to write about. I tend to feel that by the time I finish a piece on them, the opening paragraphs are already obsolete.

We all know that they are controlled from the ground, sometimes by operators who are thousands of miles away—an extraordinary concept in itself—but perhaps we should be aware that more and more ground vehicles and aircraft can control themselves for much, or all, of their operational time. Whatever be the purpose of such scientific progress, we are talking about a series of major technological achievements here.

Be that as it may, here is a short extract from a recent Wired magazine article. Danger Room is Wired’s excellent military technology section. Highly recommended.

Say goodbye to the Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, or LEMV. Built by Northrop Grumman, it’s a dimpled blimp as long as a football field; seven stories high; and carries a price tag of over half a billion dollars. The plan was to use the blimp over Afghanistan, where its gondola could haul seven tons of cargo — including advanced camera gear able to see dozens of square miles of terrain with crystal-clear resolution at a single blink. It would stay 20,000 feet above the warzone for weeks at a time, something beyond the capabilities of any spy plane, manned or piloted. Trials over Afghanistan were slated for early this year.

Not anymore. A report in InsideDefense citing anonymous sources said LEMV quietly met the Army budget axe last week. The Army confirmed it, on the record, to Danger Room late on Thursday.

It strikes me as quite an achievement to get the price of a single blimp—even with a dimple—up to over half a billion dollars (that is “billion” with a “b.”). But Northrop Gruman, the very model of a modern high cost, high margin, defense contractor, doesn’t really think in small figures, even though it never actually designed the aircraft. That distinction belongs to Hybrid Air Vehicles of the UK who rightly felt they needed a U.S. alliance if they were ever to crack the U.S. defense market. Many have had the same thought and perished in the process. 

Why “Hybrid” in the name?

Well, the LEMV actually gets only 60% of its lift from helium and the remaining 40% from aerodynamic lift. That makes it hybrid in terms of lift—and much easier to control. For instance, on the ground its own mass keeps it in place and it can move around on built-in air-cushions—rather like a hovercraft. Similarly, in the air, its own mass makes it much more stable in adverse weather conditions. Because it needs to be actively flown to obtain part of its lift, that makes the engines much more important, and it is noteworthy that the designers have planned in roughly ten times the power than would normally be available on a traditional blimp.

There is a civilian version of the LEMV known as the Airlander. One of the great advantages of such an aircraft is that theoretically it can airlift considerable quantities of material—50 tons has been mentioned—over great distances much more economically than by conventional aircraft; and it can land and take off from any cleared, relatively flat area—without the need for either a runway or ground crew. These are huge advantages.

Will this ever actually happen? Not unless more money is invested in this area. Great ideas tend to need fine-tuning to get the end result perfected, and that requires development money. 

Surveillance apart—which was the U.S. Army’s area of initial interest, potential applications are many and various. Appreciate the advantages of being able to transport heavy loads over considerable distances in a cost efficient manner without the needs for either roads or airports—while remaining unaffected by the terrain below, whether it be land, water or ice. Whole areas of the world would become accessible at last. Significant aid could be brought in fast after disasters—especially where the roads and bridges have been destroyed.

I have no idea whether Hybrid Air Vehicles have a sound design as yet or not, but this is a concept that really should be pursued.


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