My first exposure to the hybrid airship came early last year as I was researching emerging new technologies that I felt could have a significant impact on global trade and logistics — the next big thing if you will. When I came across the article on Lockheed Martin’s proof-of-concept Hybrid Airship I knew I’d found it.
My resulting JOC column recounted the efforts of Robert Boyd, Lockheed Martin’s project manager for Hybrid Airship technology, whose presentation for the Google “Solve for X” initiative provides a compelling case for the airship’s need and niche, and of the innovative technology provided by the LM-designed airship (www.youtube.com/watch?v=GdNpyWsA5No).
As a quick primer, the difference between a lighter-than-air vehicle, such as the Goodyear blimp, and the LM heavier-than-air hybrid airship is the latter’s unique combination of two additional and innovative lift-generating features. Specifically, in addition to using lighter-than-air helium gas for buoyant lift, the LM Hybrid Airship’s hull has been shaped to achieve the same type of forward-moving lift as that of a traditional airplane wing. LM then also included vectored thrust from direct-lift engines, which, in concert, allows the Hybrid Airship to become airborne within an extraordinarily short distance.
The direct-lift engines, however, also serve another role that I consider to be the jewel of LM’s design. Referred to as the air cushion landing system, or ACLS, these same engines are designed to be reversed upon landing, creating a gripping force that secures the hybrid airship to virtually any surface, including sand, snow, and even water, similar to a hovercraft.
The result? An aircraft nearly the length of a football field that requires no supporting infrastructure is capable of delivering up to 500 tons of supplies and equipment to the most austere locations imaginable and at a price point roughly equivalent to that of a truck on a dirt road.
This makes the LM Hybrid Airship exceptionally well-suited for mining and oil and gas construction projects, such as those that are a staple of Bechtel, a $32 billion global leader in engineering, construction, and project management.
In a conversation with Dennis Mottola, corporate manager of global traffic and logistics, I was provided a fascinating tutorial on the incredible size and complexity of Bechtel’s typical projects and the equal complexity of meeting logistical demands. Some project locations, for instance, are so remote that the first equipment needed to support these greenfield locations are bulldozers and earthmovers necessary to build supply roads to the site. In some cases, this can require the expense of heavy-lift helicopters.
Hybrid airships, however, would negate the need for these roads to begin with, eliminating hundreds of millions of dollars of up-front cost from the project. “The hybrid airship technology could be a valuable resource in delivering project materials for early site development at remote inaccessible jobsite locations,” Mottola said. “It could also help address logistical challenges that typical air cargo services cannot solve or where existing roadway infrastructure is not sufficiently developed. We are closely monitoring the development of commercial hybrid airship services and our approach for acquiring these services.”
This capability has now been validated by StraightLine Aviation, a company that has been following the advancements in lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air technologies. “There is a real need” for this Hybrid Airship,” Straightline CEO Mike Kendrick said. “It can cost up to $1 billion to put all the infrastructure in for an oil well.”
As a result, the company has become the exclusive worldwide reseller of LM’s hybrid airships, and has signed a $480 million letter of intent to purchase 12 airships, with first delivery scheduled for 2018.
Other low-hanging fruit includes using hybrid airships to bypass the dangerous ice roads in Canada and Alaska that are critical toward resupplying outlying villages. Some of these roads, according to Rob Binns, CEO of LM’s Hybrid Enterprises, can cost up to $20 million a year to construct. This also is being addressed by Straightline Aviation via a strategic partnership with PRL Logistics, based in Kenai, Alaska. PRL Logistics will accept its first LMH-1 airship in 2019, which is designed to carry up to 22 tons of freight, plus 18 passengers.
Boyd spoke of the vision it would take to bring hybrid airships into the real world. We are now seeing that vision become reality.
Jerry Peck is a GTM systems integration and trade and customs specialist with Hitachi Consulting. Based in Dallas, he can be contacted at 469 400 5402, or at email@example.com.