As price of fuel soars, so does a dirigible renaissance?

Snip from an article in today's New York Times about a slew of designers and firms developing new models of airships. These passenger-carrying aircraft float on the wind, rather than being propelled solely by fuel (more precise explanation here). And, ah, hopefully they don't blow up in the sky or whatever.

As the cost of fuel soars and the pressure mounts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, several schemes for a new generation of airship are being considered by governments and private companies. "It's a romantic project," said Mr. Massaud, 45, sitting amid furniture designs in his Paris studio, "but then look at Jules Verne."

It has been more than 70 years since the giant Hindenburg zeppelin exploded in a spectacular fireball over Lakehurst, N.J., killing 36 crew members and passengers, abruptly ending an earlier age of airships. But because of new materials and sophisticated means of propulsion, a diverse cast of entrepreneurs is taking another look at the behemoths of the air.

Mr. Massaud, a designer of hotels in California and a stadium in Mexico, has not ironed out the technical details, nor has he found financiers or corporate backers for his project -- to create a 690-foot zeppelin shaped like a whale, with a luxury hotel attached, that he has named Manned Cloud.

And, heh, my favorite quote here:
"A dirigible is something magical," said Jérôme Giacomoni, who was 25 when he founded Aerophile with a friend. "But most of the ideas are crazy."
Why Fly When You Can Float? [NYT]
Image: Jean-Marie Massaud.

Update: most LOLlable comment in this thread, #4 posted by Chris the Tiki guy...

[I]f they're exploring whale shapes, why not other aquatic creatures, like the seacow? That way people can point and say "Oh, the huge manatee!" (...) [I]f Helium is in short supply, I doubt we'll be launching very many lighter-than-air craft any time soon, unless we can figure out how to make hydrogen just as buoyant but less explode-y.

Image: found floating (snort) around on the internet, provenance unknown Something Awful Dot Com's Photoshop Phriday.


  1. Maybe before they get to far into they better look into the limited supply of Helium if that’s what they’re planning on using for a lifting gas. I hear supplies are getting low. And we don’t really know where we’re going to get more.

    Along with exhausting rare Earth elements, clearly we need to get that space elevator built and begin mining other celestial bodies for resources.

    p.s. I also find airships majestic, and I hope they return to popular use on this planet.

  2. And, because this joke is waiting in the wings to come one…if they’re exploring whale shapes, why not other aquatic creatures, like the seacow? That way people can point and say “Oh, the huge manatee!”

    But to agree with HDN in comment 1, if Helium is in short supply, I doubt we’ll be launching very many lighter-than-air craft any time soon, unless we can figure out how to make hydrogen just as buoyant but less explode-y.

  3. This is a strange coincidence. I just started reading Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. In the first chapter he introduces The Chums of Chance, a group of aeronauts who have all sorts of adventures with a hydrogen dirigible.
    One of the many books on flight that we inherited from my late father in law documents a commercially viable luxury passenger service by lighter than air ship between Buenos Aires and I believe Berlin. Gotta look that up.
    OTOH, a friend of mine was an engineer for Goodyear, working out of Akron where one of the blimp hangars was. He said they tended to come back with bullet holes in them if flown too low over rural areas. A distinctly non-luxurious experience.

  4. If it took a long overnight flight to get from Boston to Chicago (estimated airspeed 65+ knots rather than 3 hours at 450+ knots, AND I was in a flying hotel rather than a tiny seat in a flying bus, and one with a decent view as we went along… well, that would be very okay with me.

    I rather want that future.

  5. I really can’t take credit for the joke in #4, I saw it in a lolcat a while back, with a manatee photoshopped in over the Hindenburg. I just trotted it out because it fit so nice, much like Fezzik and the black cloak that he got from Miracle Max.

    But glad it went over well!

  6. I know it is not the most respected source, but I heard an interview on Coast to Coast AM on June 16th with this guy:

    “Bob Rist with Ohio Airships appeared with Thomas during the third hour, to discuss the development of “dynalifters,” a hybrid technology that adds wings to blimp-like structures to create heavier craft which are essentially “airplanes assisted by helium”. Rist said the ships are currently being developed to carry freight, but may eventually be used to transport passengers– some 500-600 people could comfortably travel in an air ship.”

    It was pretty interesting.

  7. Anybody else thinking Snow Crash? When you can ship South Dakota to China for a nickel, America isn’t such hot shit any more.

  8. Chris The Tiki Guy:

    In order to maintain a consistent internet vernacular, I need to point out that the Oh The Huge Manatee! image isn’t a lolcat, but regular old image macro, which predate the widespread popularity of cat macros by more than a decade, and predate the term ‘lolcat’ by at least twenty years.

  9. Neo-airships are the sort of idea/innovation/invention that are constantly appearing in Popular Science et al., always just around the corner, for decades on end.

    This article conspicuously and strongly implies that airships save fuel. Then it fails to mention any specifics about how much fuel they save. Why is that?

  10. Look, never mind all this ‘Oh, running out of helium, blah de blah, impractical, etc…’ I want zeppelins dammit!

  11. This would not make an efficient people mover. Overland, trains are a much better option. Also, most people want to get to their destination quickly. This looks more like an aerial cruise ship designed by an artist.
    Several companies have tried to create more practical airships over the past decade or so to move freight, but so far without success.
    If they build one of these though, sign me up…

  12. @ 13, thanks for the right terminology…I knew that, really I did! but I was having a bad brain day, and the closest I could get to describe an image captioned in Impact was lolcat.

    Oh what I wouldn’t give for an edit button. I could fix the typo in my original post, too!

  13. It was my impression, from basically every Hindenberg documentary I’ve seen, that it wasn’t so much the hydrogen that made it so “explody,” but the rocket fuel they painted on the outside of it.

  14. As pointed out in the original article, Helium supplies are limited, and the price has spiked recently. I can see a Hydrogen / Helium mix getting off the ground. Tougher, less inflammable materials, better safety systems, and I’ll get on one with no qualms.

    Sure, Hydrogen will explode… if you mix it with Oxygen and apply a flame to it. It didn’t catch fire of its own accord on the Hindenberg, it caught fire after the gas bags were ruptured by the burning skin: the flame and oxygen it needed to complete the Fire Triangle.

  15. The main problem is weather…

    To transport goods reliably it has to be in all kinds of weather conditions like the post office…

    Once this has been solved, then airships are surely the future.

  16. @#25: Weather isn’t so much a problem for airships (as has already been mentioned). It can take turbulence with no problem, and can take on quite heavy winds (it might not make it through a hurricane, but still). The point is that they can survive better in weather than planes can, and we fly those all the time.

  17. @#15

    The reason that they don’t mention how much fuel these save is 1) because they (probably) don’t know and 2) at this point this is a pie-in-the-sky idea that appeals primarily to the more sentimental among us.

    My guess is you will never see this idea…ahem…’take off’ unless it becomes obvious that the technology actually does save fuel, and secondly, that the opportunity cost, measured primarily in lost productivity, of switching to very slow lighter-than-air travel from very fast jet travel, justifies the change. This, of course, would be a change in spite of the current biofuel effort in the flight industry.

    Grumpy reasoning aside…this would be a beautiful way to travel.

  18. I thought: “Well its easy to get helium! Let’s just perfect hydrogen fusion!” and then I realized that if we did that we probably wouldn’t be needing airships at all.

  19. no more helium? No more oil? No more polar caps? No more tillable soil? No more drinkable water?

    The future is made of soylent green, man, cause that’s all we’ll have left.

  20. holy handbags batman… what about hot nitrogen? that’s lighter than normal air and is non-flammable (under normal circumstances, you need an awfull lot of energy input into the system to get it to oxidise,,,).

    Just stick winglets onto the lifting body and have tiltable ducted fans for liftoff and horizontal flight…

  21. Say what you want about the lack of helium or rehashing the Hindenberg debate, but I recall a day a few years back when the subject of travel came up among a group of friends, and it was clear that we all hated air travel. (I hated it the least but have plenty of grumbles about the experience.) At one point I declared that I was ready for the return of the dirigible–and there was a chorus of amens, some of which didn’t come from our circle. I think we’re ready. Hell, I know I’m ready.

  22. @18 “Also, most people want to get to their destination quickly.”

    Given the general level of uselessness at airports with decrepit radar and air routing systems, tsa, and the general taking forevericity of airplane travel I wonder if a blimp wouldn’t actually make it to the destination faster.

  23. I wonder if riding a Zepplin would be a more gentle experience than an airliner. I once got really airsick on a commuter plane that kept circling the San Luis Obispo airport during a storm, and it was one of the most miserable experiences of my life.

    I love the idea of being able to go across the Atlantic or Pacific on a blimp or Zepplin.

  24. Gilmoid anonymous here

    The huge manatee pic is from Something Awful Dot Com’s Photoshop Phriday. (Their Comedy Goldmine is also funny).

  25. This is really exciting.
    I don’t know if this has been mentioned yet, but there’s a German company that builds and flies dirigibles commercially:
    Zeppelin NT (wikipedia)

    They have a max speed of 125 km/h. If that speed is relative to the surrounding air, higher ground speeds would be possible by taking advantage of prevailing winds. In addition, airships can proceed to their destination in a straight line, without having to go around/over geographical obstructions.

    This makes airships definitely much faster than cars, and possibly able to compete with trains for passenger transport – they do have the scenery/comfort advantage, after all.
    This excludes high-speed rail like the TGV, of course.

  26. I’m still waiting for the p-shoped LOLCAT “I can has Hindenburger!” but I’m too tired right now from laughing at the huge manatee.

  27. Flying from the west coast to europe takes a nominal 9-11 hrs depending on the exact endpoints. Airport torture adds a bit to that; say around 10 hrs. Then there is transport to and from the endpoint airports; rarely less than hour at each end and quite possibly 5 or so.

    So we’re looking at anything from 20 to 30 hrs actual transit time for a journey. I get to add the fun of getting from my small Pacific island to the mainland, adding anything up to 6hrs because of scheduling issues.

    An airship that could do the journey might (given a sensible travel regime) be able to go from said island direct to Yurp. Airships could reasonably dock right at major transit centres. Customs and Irritation cold be handled on-ship. One could have room to actually sleep and walk around and get over at least part of the jetlag. A 200mph groundspeed would mean about 25hrs transit time – but no destination airport hassles, less jetlag, less cramping, less airport to final destination time, maybe less home to departure airport time. It might even be civilised!

  28. Beware the Hover Manatee.
    …and all you haters of Airships. When I win the lottery I’m floating over you houses in my new Zeppelin and emptying the toilet tanks :)

  29. I think airships can serve a very valid air travel need … replacing several of the larger spokes in the existing hub-and-spoke model.

    Plus, the lower altitudes might actually be in range of the existing cellphone network, leading to effective business communication during flight.

    For California, it could make a useful substitution for some or all of the hourly SF/Oakland-LA basin flights. Put Moffet Field back to its original use, and quiet the complaints of residents near Bob Hope with an airship conversion.

  30. Hmmm. this from the article

    “The U.S. government ran the helium industry for 70 years, but since the mid-90s it has been in the domain of the oil and natural gas industries.”

    And now its running out.

    Perhaps just a coincidence, but the oil and gas industries are all about making things scarce and allowing prices to rise, it seems to work well for them and…well…they only care about themselves and money.

  31. There is no helium shortage. Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe and the superstructure of our planet (the big bit in the middle) produces huge quantities of it all the time and will continue to do so for as long as it is inhabitable. Most of that escapes into space because the planet isn’t massive enough to capture it with gravity, but we could collect it if we wanted to. It’s even fairly straightforward to manufacture the stuff directly (almost every fission reaction produces it), although the cost is probably too high compared to just collecting it.

    The shortage is of pockets of concentrated helium in oil and natural gas deposits. In other words, the oil industry is running out of helium to sell. It is an impressive bit of media manipulation that they’ve managed to spin this into sounding like a global helium shortage. The reality is that you’ll just have to buy it from somebody else (price is hard to guess; extraction would be more expensive, but the oil industry’s profit margins are huge anyway).

    We don’t really need that much helium anyway. Most of what we currently produce is released into the atmosphere because it’s so cheap that nobody can be bothered to collect it. If the price went up, consumption would go way down.

  32. We all joke about Herb Morrisson’s “Oh, the humanity!” line, but if you go and listen to the actual recording, and hear the panic and raw emotion in his voice, you’ll probably end up with tears in your eyes, even after so many years. (I’m not having a go at anyone, I LOL’ed at the huge manatee thing myself).

  33. Solar balloons need no helium, or hydrogen, or any fuel for that matter. Of course you can’t steer them in any direction except down, so you have to watch the weather forecast and time your launch and descend carefully.

  34. I suspect that the Hindenburg crash only served as the patsy for a wider-spread, industry takedown. For instance, airliners crash all the time, killing hundreds in a single, firey, far more destructive blast – but you don’t hear anyone ringing the death-knell of the airline industry…

  35. asuffield
    There is no helium shortage.

    If you are in a lifeboat on the ocean there is no water shortage either. None-the-less you will die of thirst if you run out.

  36. A followup for those who want their meat with their potatoes. According to the Aviation Safety Network (whoever they are:

    Year Accidents Casualties
    2007 26 750
    2006 27 888
    2005 35 1059
    2004 28 429
    2003 25 679
    2002 37 1101
    2001 28 768
    2000 36 1082

  37. The Hindenburg was essentially coated with flash paper. Analysis of the covering showed that the chemicals used in the dope combined to make a horribly flammable substance that propagated the fire over the skin far faster than would happen with a normal hydrogen fire.

    Helium is a byproduct of the natural gas/petroleum industry. As the one runs out, so does the other. You’ll need to do a solar tap to get more of it, or develop one of those Broussard ramjets Niven was so enamoured with and suck the helium out so it doesn’t contaminate the hydrogen you’re trying to collect for your propulsion.

    I think we’re starting to figure out why the aliens haven’t contacted us. Not only is space mindbogglingly huge as Douglas Adams would put it, unless you’ve discovered FTL or Interdimensional travel, but also most planets hit resource exhaustion within 400 years after going high tech. Nothing left to hoist and throw away in space.

    By the time we’ve got to mining the Moon, we’ll have treated our atmosphere the same way, transported it to leaky lunar habitats and allowed it to blow off into space.

  38. By the time we’ve got to mining the Moon, we’ll have treated our atmosphere the same way, transported it to leaky lunar habitats and allowed it to blow off into space.

    Colonel Sandurz: Once we kidnap the princess, we can force her father, King Roland, to give us the combination to the air shild, thereby destroying Planet Druidia and saving Planet Spaceball.

    Dark Helmet: [to camera] Everybody got that?

  39. @ZuZu

    Thanks for the reminder, better than any Unicorn Chaser posted on Boing Boing, just made me go pull the movie off my shelf to go watch it. When things get too oppressive, a good romp with “Men in Tights” or “Spaceballs” lets you forget the doom and gloom. Personally, I’ve always found “Red Dwarf” closer to the truth about space travel than “Star Trek” any day.

  40. One year the Superbowl was in San Diego where I live, and there was an invasion of commercial blimps that was quite impressive – at night there were so many gently floating masses of lights in the sky, it looked like a Night Raid of Zeppelins over England. During the day, they really were like a bunch of manatees swimming overhead – I’m all for more LTA passenger flights. If you’re ever in Tillamook, OR, check out the Zep shed there.

  41. This whole idea of attaching a hotel to the zeppelin is SO reminiscent of R Buckminster Fuller’s proposal of heating the air in very large domes a few degrees so you could fill them with cities and float them in the air. I think it’s a clever idea – whether on zeppelin or floating dome.

  42. Personally, I’d love a return to the 30’s without the fascism and unfortunate accidents. Zeppelins, luxurious cruise ships (as opposed to floating mini malls we’ve got now), attractive cars, the list goes on. Bah. Stupid modern world.

  43. Reply to #58 by Ken Hansen
    Let the record show that we agree. I have a penchant for hyperbole and dirigibles are awesome.

    Cheers Ken :-)

  44. This is really exciting.
    I don’t know if this has been mentioned yet, but there’s a German company that builds and flies dirigibles commercially:
    Zeppelin NT (wikipedia)

    Not only that, but they’ll be flying over London in the next few weeks…


  45. Giler, that looks cool!

    ..but expensive :(

    £185 = 30min flight
    £295 = 45min flight
    £360 = 60min flight


  46. Well, since the topic seems to be dirgibles and felines:

    Sky Kitten!

    #15: SkyCat have some figures on the fuel consumption of their dirgibles, but I think they’re largely theoretical for now, as the first full-size prototype is still under construction.

  47. #60: Giler: That’s this weekend (!) I shall have to make a plan to be in central London during daylight hours…

  48. Vaccum airships can also do the trick considering new nanotechnology possibilities of lightweight and sound materials.
    Furthermore landing fields could be situated inside the city centers as noise pollution and the need for long landing tarmacs would not be an issue anymore- on short flights (say 1hour by plane) the actual trip duration could be in favor of such airship. (see #38)

  49. Great to see one of my favorite pet futurist topics on here. I’ve been toying with my own concepts for near-future airships for years -as in this latest Lighter-Then-Air-Solar-inspired hybrid concept for a replacement to the Magnus Effect airships proposed by futurist Marshal Savage in The Millennial Project;

    I think we will be seeing a lot more discussion of airships in the near future. Jets have always been a grossly inefficient means of transportation -hence the reason why most trade goods on the planet still travel by ship at a mere 25mph. But there’s much cultural inertia in the aerospace community and engineers have made a hobby of casually mocking airship revivalists since the end of WWII. But if we are really at the end of the oil era, they will have to start singing a different tune. Make no mistake, airships will never function like jets. But being different in characteristics doesn’t make something flawed -as has long been the presumption with airships. There are huge gaps in cost-performance in our transportation spectrum that no fixed wing aircraft can fill yet airships can very neatly.

    For instance, no VTOL capable aircraft exists that can travel at intercontinental ranges -let alone do so at a cost-performance comparable to a semi-truck. However, we have the technology at-hand with airships to produce VTOL capable vehicles that can match the speed of a semi-truck with unlimited range running on solar power alone, can triple that speed running on hydrogen, and need virtually no ground support infrastructure making the most inaccessible parts of the globe accessible -with no environmental impact. People are dying in places like Darfur right now for the lack of that kind of flight capability.

    Certainly, the unsustainable supply of helium -now the favorite bone of contention for today’s airship detractors- is a problem and relying on hydrogen lift gas may never be feasible outside of industrial applications no matter how irrational the fear of it actually is. But this is one issue near-term technology may soon completely eliminate. Nanofiber and nanomembrane based composites, with their extreme tensile strength and low mass, offer the prospect to create airships that rely on vacuum lift rather than a lighter-than-air gas. This innovation could be less than a decade away. This will actually greatly simplify airship operation, allowing for convenient use of air as dynamic ballast control, while also increasing their structural performance, with rigid composite hulls perhaps the most likely leader in future designs. It will also enable airships to operate at altitudes far beyond that of fixed wing aircraft, potentially greatly increasing flight speeds to something more akin to jets. The use of airships as launch systems for spacecraft is now under study by a number of aerospace companies -all start-ups, of course, since the Old Guard never ‘get it’ no matter what ‘it’ happens to be.

    Aerostats are another promising application of airships likely to see more use in the near future. The same technology that would enable a solar powered airship also allows for the creation of stationary high altitude platforms serving as wireless telecommunications stations with most of the benefits of satellites and none of their disadvantages along with only a fraction of their cost. Such applications are already being explored by a number of companies -again, all start-ups. Though probably never quite what one would call ‘practical’, aerostats combined with vacuum lift technology could evolve into a new class of architecture based on aerial buildings, some serving scientific purposes as high altitude research stations but others merely created as enormous novelties or works of art. These would probably be rather far removed from the flying cities of fantasy and SciFi -most likely employing ultralight structures of rather minimalist form or based on tensegrity truss systems and being rather kite-like in aspect. (which seems quite more elegant to me) As reported here some time ago, already one artist is planning the creation of a bamboo framed lighter than air banana intended to float free to the edge of space! Imagine the things people might make when these structures can be permanent and employ active station-keeping.

    So the future is looking quite promising for this supposedly antiquated technology.

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