There was once a time when man looked to the skies and expected to see giant balloons rather than airplanes drifting above. The Hindenburg Disaster promptly put an end to those dreams. But nearly a century later, one company may have finally figured out how to build a dirigible suitable for the 21st century. Just don't call it a blimp.
This fully rigid airship, dubbed the Aeroscraft, differs fundamentally from, say, the Goodyear blimp. Blimps, by definition, have no internal structure and maintain their shapes only through the pressure of the gas they contain; when the gas escapes, they deflate like the gigantic balloons they are. Rigid airships, like zeppelins before them, maintain their shape regardless of gas pressure thanks to an internal skeleton structure—the Hindenburg utilized highly flammable balsa wood, but the Aeroscraft's is made of aluminum and carbon fiber—and maintains its buoyancy with a series of gas-filled bladders. And unlike hybrid airships, the Aeroscraft doesn't require forward momentum to generate lift via a set of wings. It's all helium power.
The Aeroscraft has been under development by Aeros Corp, the world's largest airship and blimp maker, since 1996. The project has received over $35 million in R&D funds and the government has even lent the company a couple of NASA boffins to help develop the aerodynamics and control systems. And with the successful launch of its half-scale prototype, the Pelican, last weekend, the investment looks to have paid off. The future of lighter-than-air travel looks to be imminently upon us.
At 266 feet long and 97 feet wide, the Pelican prototype is just about half the size of what a full-scale Aeroscraft will be. If completed the Aeroscraft will measure more than 400 feet long and be capable of lifting 66 tons or more.
Unlike blimps that maintain a constant buoyancy and rely on ballast and fans to adjust their altitude, the Aeroscraft will employ a unique bladder system that can alter the craft's static heaviness (relative to air) at will, dubbed COSH (Control of Static Heaviness). The system actually works quite similarly to how submarines use compressed air to float.
The Aeroscraft is equipped with a series of pressurized helium tanks ( via gizmodo.com ).