Lockheed Martin introduced plans for their new LMH1 hybrid airship on June 16 at this year's Paris Air Show, setting their sights on a commercial debut by 2018. The announcement comes after a multiyear stretch of airship developers focusing their attentions on a military audience, whose interest has waxed and waned numerous times over the past several decades. As the company prepares to move into what it hopes will be a more committed airship market, Lockheed has partnered with Hybrid Enterprises, which will handle all commercial marketing and sales.
The new airship, designed to appeal to civilian businesses, is based on the P-791, the half-scale demo airship that Lockheed first flew in 2006, which marked the beginning of an airship renaissance of sorts. At the time of the P-791's test flight, there was great interest from the military community for such a lighter-than-air craft; airships and hot air balloons have been in military service since before the US Civil War, with the US Navy last using airships in the '60s for sea patrols. The low cost and ability to stay aloft for extended periods without needing to come down for refueling makes them ideal aircraft.
Airships have been something of a "technology of the future" for more than a century, since Rudyard Kipling wrote a science fiction short With the Night Mail around them in 1905. Since then, the technology has faded in and out of the public mind. The 1937 Hindenburg disaster may have damaged the reputation of lighter-than-air craft beyond repair, but the vehicle technology still appears regularly in various imaginative schemes, as promoters have sought a military or civil customer that would help the technology turn the corner and bring it into widespread acceptance.
Sadly, the military's latest burst of interest had largely disappeared by 2012. Though a handful of programs survived the period, such as the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) — which is once again being considered as part of a larger missile defense plan — a number of others, including the Air Force's much-touted Blue Devil 2 airship project, were cancelled or curtailed. According to Bob Boyd, Lockheed Martin's hybrid airship program manager, however, these cuts had no impact on Lockheed's airship project.
"Lockheed Martin started the cargo airship effort in 1991 as a commercial activity and has continued on that path throughout development," Boyd told VICE News. When military interest waned, Boyd said, Lockheed's airship program continued through internal investment.
More than 20 years of research and development have gone into the LMH1 — as well as an unspecified amount of funds — and the company suggests that the airship's cargo-carrying capabilities are, to a degree, revolutionary.
The hybrid airship, which relies on a combination of aerodynamics and helium buoyancy for flight, is being billed as the ultimate cargo vessel. The initial model is expected to have a 20-ton carrying capacity, a flight range of 1,400 nautical miles, and an average speed of around 60 knots — or approximately 70 mph. Meanwhile, the airship's landing gear is similar to that of a hovercraft. The air cushion landing system allows for takeoff and landing on pretty much any flat surface — either on land or water — while also providing grip capability. When the airship's fans are reversed, a vacuum is created, essentially suctioning the craft to the landing area and eliminating the need for ground crews and tie-down apparatus to keep the airship grounded.
What this means for airship customers, Boyd says, is an ability to deliver cargo to even some of the most remote locales, those not typically serviced by airports or roads.
"Lockheed Martin's Hybrid Airships will significantly reduce the cost and environmental impact of remote operations, making it possible to reach locations previously thought inaccessible," Rob Binns, CEO of Hybrid Enterprises, said in a statement.
Boyd echoed Lockheed's partner when he spoke with VICE News. "Our detailed studies show that the initial vehicle has the highest value in markets and locations that have very little transportation infrastructure," he said. "These include mining, oil and gas, and remote cargo operations."
Another possible application for the hybrid airship, Boyd said, is as a replacement for ice-road trucking, which is limited, of course, by the ever-changing weight-bearing ability of ice.
But finding the right launch customer could be a challenge. "For initial viability of the market, I am less focused on the variable costs per airship trip; rather, it's how able Lockheed will be in recouping the substantial fixed costs from approximately 20 years of Skunk Works' R&D," Terry Babcock-Lumish, founder of Islay Consulting, told VICE News. "Consider, for example, how much will an LMH1 cost once on the market? How many orders will they (Lockheed) need for this program to literally fly?"
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While neither Lockheed nor Hybrid Enterprises have announced the costs to customers for an off-the-shelf airship, both companies have been quick to extol the savings customers would experience over other shipping method. A promotional video from Lockheed touts the potential cost-per-ton-mile savings over other aircraft, and Binns told the Telegraph that an airship would be seven or eight times cheaper than other modes of transport. Of course, the savings depend on the mode of transport to which you're comparing the airship.
"Exact costs vary by application, but modeling [suggests] the 20-ton hybrid airship's operating costs in remote regions are similar to existing ground modes of transportation, such as ice-road trucking, and approximately 80 percent less than heavy-lift helicopters," Boyd told VICE News. "The largest part of the savings is avoiding infrastructure costs like roads or rail lines into remote areas. These costs are very large — typically billions of dollars — and are spent early in the project cycle, substantially increasing risk. The hybrid airship enables a lower expense hurdle to initial operations and a much lower shut-down cost at the tail end of a large project."
There's more to the cost-benefit analysis, however. Because the airship is marketed to customers seeking to send cargo to more remote areas, it's more likely that a customer would only have cargo traveling one way, so their airship could, conceivably, be empty on the return flight, which would essentially double the price of delivery. Hybrid Enterprises has suggested humanitarian aid groups as a possible niche market, but here, too, economics could keep them from embracing the airship.
"Humanitarian aid shipments very much are one-way cargo, but the question becomes where does that money come from [to pay for the airships]," Richard L. Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for Teal Group, which specializes in the aerospace and defense industries, told VICE News. "Humanitarian relief isn't what you'd call a well-capitalized business."
Military applications, Aboulafia suggested, seemed somewhat more practical. "In terms of ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance], it's sort of intriguing," he said. "I would have thought there would be something there."
But while Lockheed welcomes sales from the US government, it told VICE News that, at present, those sales are not an assumption in the business plan.
Instead, the company is moving forward with efforts to get the LMH1 hybrid airship certified by the FAA for commercial flights.
"FAA type certification for the Hybrid Airship to fly commercially is expected by 2018," Boyd said. "We also intend to seek and obtain certification for worldwide operations. We have already made significant progress in the certification process for a new type of air vehicle, including extensive dialog with the FAA to develop a new certification basis and appropriate certification plan."
If all goes as planned, Lockheed has said they could deliver ready-to-fly airships to customers by 2018, and they're already planning for future models. Future airships have the potential to reach a carrying capacity of 500 tons.
"At the largest scale, a 500-ton vehicle would allow for the creation of inland ports," Boyd told VICE News. "A 500-ton hybrid airship could move cargo from, for example, central China to the central part of the United States at cost approaching ocean freight and in much less time — a couple of days versus weeks." This is possible, Boyd explained, because an airship could, in theory, cut over the pole, shaving many miles — and hours — from its route. It would also eliminate the use for multiple modes of transport. Instead of the cargo needing to go from truck to train to ship to truck, an airship would provide door-to-door service.
All of this, of course, is dependent upon consumer interest and Hybrid Enterprises' ability to lock down an initial launch customer.
"You need someone who will see the value, and not many people have in the past," Aboulafia said. "It's certainly got better economics than traditional air cargo transport, better access than sea transport, and more flexibility… But it's the market's decision."
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