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"Father of Aeronautics" Francesco Lana de Terzi's 1670 design for an airship. Photo Credit: Wikipedia.
“Father of Aeronautics” Francesco Lana de Terzi’s 1670 design for an airship. Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

Ever since 1670, when the “Father of Aeronautics” Francesco Lana de Terzi first designed an “Aerial Ship”, mankind has dreamed of being able to ferry people and cargo across the skies. Real traction in the effort came in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, especially with Count von Zeppelin’s rigid airship designs that allowed for further travel than ever before. But as the industry moved more towards passenger airplanes, and following the wake of the tragic Hindenburg disaster of the 1930’s, the efforts to carry large, heavy cargo via air stalled…until now.
Thanks to carbon fiber, and a combination of old technology and new, the oblong zeppelin-style airships are coming back, and the old, original dream of being able to transport heavy cargo across the skies is finally becoming a reality.
The Wingfoot One, Goodyear's newest non-blimp "blimp".  Photo Credit: Goodyear
The Wingfoot One, Goodyear’s newest non-blimp “blimp”. Photo Credit: Goodyear

Goodyear, well-known for their blimps that provide video recording of sports games, parades, and other outdoor events, recently unveiled their newest aircraft, the Wingfoot One. Although they still call it a blimp, it’s technically not; blimps by definition have no frame, and the Wingfoot One has a semi-rigid frame built from carbon fiber and aluminum. The new non-blimp “blimp” comes with many great improvements over previous models, including the ability to hover. Traditional blimps require airspeed to maneuver (all of the control surfaces rely on passing air to move the ship), which means that they typically have to circle an area repeatedly to get a few seconds of camera footage. The Wingfoot One, however, utilizes rotating engines, which allow pilots to stop the aircraft in place for an extended period of time.
Besides the ability to hover, the Wingfoot One is also much larger than Goodyear’s previous blimps. At 249 feet long, it’s 53 feet longer than their last generation of blimps, and 14 feet longer than a Boeing 747. Instead of seating 6 passengers and 1 pilot uncomfortably, Wingfoot One provides reclining seats for 12 passengers and 2 pilots, creating a much more comfortable ride. It’s faster, too; this giant, floating zeppelin tops out at 77 mph, with a cruising speed of 50 mph (a full 15 mph faster than their previous models).
The Aeroscraft is a semi-rigid airship with a carbon fiber and aluminum frame (bottom) surrounded by a silvery mylar skin (top). Photo Credits: Popular Mechanics
The Aeroscraft is a semi-rigid airship with a carbon fiber and aluminum frame (bottom) surrounded by a silvery mylar skin (top). Photo Credits: Popular Mechanics

But while Goodyear is developing carbon fiber “blimps” for better camera recording, another company, run by Kazak engineer Igor Pasternak, is building them for much larger purposes, such as transporting giant turbines or mining equipment to remote areas of the globe. Introducing: The Aeroscraft, a massive, 266-foot-long and 110-foot-wide rigid aircraft that more resembles a shiny whale shark than it does anything you’d expect to be able to fly.
The Aeroscraft is constructed with a carbon fiber and aluminum frame inside a skin of shiny mylar composite material, and provides a cruising speed of 115 mph, more than twice that of the Wingfoot One. What really makes this airship so special, though, is its innovative buoyancy system, inspired by buoyancy systems of submarines. When a submarine descends, it draws in seawater, and then pumps it back out again to increase buoyancy and return to the surface. The Aeroscraft follows that exact technology, but with air instead of water. The airship is equipped with 18 very large helium tanks and expansion bladders. When the helium is compressed inside the tanks, a partial vacuum will develop around the expansion bladders, which fill with air from outside the craft. Since air is heavier than helium, the buoyancy drops, and the ship descends. When the helium tanks release helium back into the main envelope of the ship itself, the expansion bladders deflate to neutralize the internal air pressure, forcing the in-drawn air back outside of the craft. As a result, the buoyancy increases, and the ship rises.
But the Aeroscraft’s buoyancy system isn’t the only factor that separates it from other aircrafts. While conventional airships require ground crews and runways, this one doesn’t, which would allow it to fly to a roadless region of a desolate area, settle on the tundra to unload mining equipment or other material from its huge cargo compartment, and take off again entirely on its own. It has the capability of delivering huge wind turbines, slung below the hull, or other large loads normally only capable of being handled by ocean freighters.While still in the prototype phase, the Aeroscraft has successfully completed its first lift-off, during which the ship rose 35 feet before settling back to Earth.
The Aeroscraft utilizes helium tanks (1) to fill the ship's "skin" (2), making the craft rise. To descend, air bladders (3) intake air from outside the ship. Photo Credit: Popular Mechanics.
The Aeroscraft utilizes helium tanks (1) to fill the ship’s “skin” (2), making the craft rise. To descend, air bladders (3) intake air from outside the ship. Photo Credit: Popular Mechanics.

The biggest challenge posed in the construction of the Aeroscraft was a matter of weight: the buoyancy system, while innovative, requires heavy tanks and pumps, and a very strong (typically heavy) hull structure. By building the frame out of carbon fiber, the company was able to gain massive strength for the hull, with very minimal weight in the frame itself.
While the Aeroscraft is the largest rigid airship built in the United States since the 1940’s, it’s nothing compared to Pasternak’s big-picture vision. The inventor’s next goal is to acquire an entire fleet of 555-foot-long airships, each capable of carrying some 66 tons of cargo. By 2020, Pasternak predicts that he’ll already have a fleet of 24 of these flying behemoths. But he’s not stopping there: ultimately, he envisions launching an airship capable of carrying 250 tons of cargo. This dream craft will be a whopping 770 feet long (3 times longer than a Boeing 747)!
In the past 10 years, several companies have invested millions of dollars into the continued development of these huge airships, which, as it turns out, may not be a bad investment. A study performed by the Pentagon’s U.S. Transportation Command discovered that large airships like these would be able to transport cargo far less expensively than fixed-wing planes. The airships cost 1/3 of the price of a Boeing 747 and use 2/3 less fuel, and can carry much, much larger loads. Considering this, and the fact that these ships have been designed and redesigned since the late 1600’s, why is it that they’re just now becoming a realistic freight option? According to Pasternak, it’s “very simple…we are ready.”