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UK firm works to get hybrid cargoship off the ground

By Adina Solomon on April 22, 2014

It claims to hold the title of the world’s longest vehicle that flies. It can land anywhere flat, including on water, ice and in the desert. And it may be coming to a sky near you.

The pitch for Hybrid Air Vehicles’ (HAV) heavy-lift cargo aircraft promises a lot. And Chris Daniels, head of partnerships and communications for HAV, says it will deliver when a hybrid aircraft is ready for market by late 2018 or early 2019.

“How it flies is it really takes the best of helicopters, airplanes and airships and puts them all together,” Daniels says.

Right now, the Airlander 10 is a prototype.

HAV is based in the UK, but the Airlander’s story begins with the U.S. military.

The U.S. military oversaw design of the original Airlander, and HAV conducted test flights in the U.S. In one test, the Airlander flew 90 minutes and up to 3,000 feet (914 meters), Daniels says.

The U.S. government invested US$300 million (217 million euros) in the program before it was stopped due to budget cuts. In September 2013, HAV bought back the Airlander for just US$301,000 (217,800 euros), basically the vehicle’s scrap value.

“We knew it was a ground-breaking aircraft with new technology that had all the innovations needed to make this really work, and we knew there was a ready market for it,” Daniels says. “In effect, we’ve got Uncle Sam to thank for a significant input in research and development.”

The Airlander arrived in the UK in December 2013. Daniels says it cost HAV more to ship the aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean than it did to buy it back from the military.

The Airlander has been in development ever since it arrived in the UK at a former Royal Air Force aircraft hangar in Bedford, UK. HAV agreed to share all data with the U.S. government.

“Such that the taxpayers’ money in the U.S. that has been spent on this hasn’t been wasted,” Daniels explains.

The Airlander 10 is 301 feet (92 meters) long. HAV plans to use it for civilian applications such as emergency communications in disasters and extra mobile coverage during major sports events.

And this vehicle goes for endurance. Daniels says the main goal for the final vehicle is the ability to fly five days at a time. Because only one engine needs to run while the vehicle is airborne, this leads to lower fuel consumption.

HAV plans to do the first European flight of the Airlander 10 at the end of the year. Daniels says the company needs to test it under different conditions than it was originally under with the U.S. military program, which explains why it’s taking more time.

The next phase is creating a cargo-carrying heavy-lift aircraft with more powerful engines, a 50-tonne payload and a hovercraft landing system. Daniels says this airship has already been designed.

“That means you’ve got a fully-flexible aircraft that can pretty much land anywhere that is flat,” he says.

HAV’s discussions with end-users, especially mining companies, focused on the cost benefits of this technology in places with little infrastructure.

“Take an example of mines in Northern Canada. The ice roads are having a shorter and shorter season, and it’s just becoming more and more expensive to use that route,” Daniels says. “There’s a lot of security issues in Africa about using any sort of road transport and even going through ports, and if you can bypass going through countries and going through borders, you’re just in a much better position.”

HAV’s airship will have less of an effect, at least at first, in places where infrastructure already exists, he says.

“It’s in the more austere locations that we’ll really make a big difference,” Daniels says.

Daniels estimates that the market could demand 600-1,000 of HAV’s hybrid aircraft.

“The limiting factor is how quickly we can manufacture them,” he says.

The hangar in Bedford will allow the company to manufacture 6-10 aircraft per year. Eventually, HAV will move to a new facility or open up different facilities, probably in the U.S. or Canada.

The majority of research and development for the Airlander is done, so all the funding that HAV needs now is to complete the first UK flight.

“That will prove that we’ve got a vehicle has a permit to fly from our aviation authority, which will then unlock a whole array of orders that we already know are waiting in the wings pending that,” Daniels says.