Can the shipping industry take blimps seriously?

World Aeros wants to make airships that can transport 250-ton loads. They're cheaper and more energy efficient than cargo planes, but potential investors must first get over the "giggle factor."

Igor Pasternak of World Aeros wants to be the first to harness helium for multi-ton deliveries, proving to the world that airships (the preferred term) have a bright future in commercial cargo. Bloomberg Businessweek reports.

They’re light and take off and land vertically, making airships an energy-efficient way to carry big loads to out-of-the-way places -- without having to build runways or roads first -- at a quarter the cost of regular cargo planes.

Their Aeroscraft has a cargo capacity of up to 250 tons (three times that of the C-17), and its design solves a century-old problem:

Traditional blimps, like birthday balloons, are great at rising but not so good at returning to earth. Lacking buoyancy control, they have to be tethered by a crew after landing. The drawback makes large cargo deliveries virtually impossible: Any weight that’s offloaded has to be replaced with an equally heavy load -- say, of sand or lead -- for the craft to keep its equilibrium.

To tackle that problem, Aeros engineers created a “variable buoyancy” system that pumps helium out of the main chamber and into lightweight compression tanks in the hull. The compressed gas makes room for the ship to take on more air, allowing for a slow descent.

This concept isn’t new but was considered impractical because of weight. But now there are lightweight materials like the carbon-fiber tubes that make up Aeroscraft’s skeleton and the aluminum honeycomb panels in its frame. Also, laminated fabric pouches, instead of titanium tanks, are used for pressurized helium .

A test flight is planned for this year. Pasternak estimates $3 billion will be needed to build a fleet of 24 ships, which he wants to lease to companies or governments. The U.S. Department of Defense has committed $60 million, and private investment is being sought.

If Aeroscraft really does fly, cargo operators, along with oil and wind power companies, could become airship customers. But “people just don’t take them seriously,” says Paul Adams of Airship Journal. To secure investors and establish a new market, Pasternak must overcome the “giggle factor.”

[Via Businessweek]

Image: Aeroscraft

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