The Hindenburg disaster in 1937 sounded the death knell for mainstream use of lighter-than-air airships. 36 people died when the airship burst into flames and crashed to the ground as it approached its mooring mast in New Jersey.

Freight Carrier

Considering it was filled with highly flammable hydrogen, in retrospect it was clearly a dangerous way to travel. Today dirigibles are niche to say the least, being used occasionally for advertising, surveillance and getting to remote places.

But that might be about to change as people start to rethink the potential for the airship as a sustainable, environmentally friendly method of transporting cargo. One advocate of the dirigible is cyclist hero Graeme Obree, who Humans Invent has followed over the last year as he attempts to break the human-powered land speed record.

Most of the cost of a mango is paying for the aviation fuel that gets it here

In a rare moment not talking about bikes, we learnt of Obree’s fascination with airships. Today’s ships mostly use non-flammable helium, removing a significant danger, and Obree believes they have the potential  to cut carbon emissions dramatically.

Could we be seeing more of these in our skies?

Solar Ship

Interestingly, this year Canadian company Solar Ship announced they are building three fossil-free, solar hybrid airships that combine photovoltaic technology with helium, the largest of which will be able to carry 30 tonnes.

What do you think?

Do you agree with Obree, are airships the way forward? Watch our film of Obree’s call to arms above. Leave your comments below and we will pass them on.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

The End
  • campbell

    I am Darrell Campbell, the designer of the “turtle” airship.

    Turtle Airships began THIRTY TWO YEARS AGO; our purpose is to create truly viable solar powered aircraft that can bring affordable, efficient, versatile air transport to any peoples, anywhere.
    The Turtle Airship design is completely different from all other airships, in that it is a fully RIGID SHELLED craft; not some glorified elongated balloon. It is constructed of aluminum and carbon fiber composite panels. These are assembled in a geodesic construction similar to the Buckminster geodesic domes. This makes the Turtle Airship able to fly in virtually any weather; and, of importance to the vast majority of potential flyers…able to withstand the higher forces of much greater speeds. whereas past airships have flown at about 100 km/h, the Turtle Airship can conceivably fly three to four times as fast.
    The Turtle’s broad, lifting body shape allows it to carry sufficient solar cells for power. These are paired with fuel cells and/or batteries…and used for slower speeds.
    For higher speeds, the Turtle uses JET engines. These burn biofuels.
    With multiple engines of differing types (electric motors and jet engines); and using directed thrust, the Turtle Airship is more maneuverable than any other past airship. No ground crew is needed.
    Because of the strength of the Turtle Airships’ hull, it needs no hangar. To eliminate all need for mooring masts; the Turtle is designed primarily to be an AMPHIBIOUS craft; it lands in water. This gives it the ability to land virtually anywhere…even in mid-ocean if desired.

  • Samuel G

    can anyone comment on cost/supply situation re helium? I thought it was becoming scarce

    • campbell

      the huge supplies of helium stored by the U.S. government are being vented (thrown away) due to costs of maintaining them. This has prompted private supplies to rise in price, as the less expensive government owned helium is taken away from the marketplace.

      Large helium deposits in Russia are not yet developed enough to fill the void in the market, but will eventually help bring prices and availability down somewhat. not enough.

      the nation of Qatar is vigorously pursuing the creation of more helium extraction from their plentiful natural gas reserves; expecting to become the world’s #2 source for helium in the future.

      A start has been made to develop helium from offshore drilling of natural gas in the Timor Sea.

      Regardless of these, helium will remain scarce and expensive. The future airship industry, in order to be of true economic importance and impact, MUST move towards the use of other lifting gasses, despite their inherent risks. These include: Hydrogen, Ammonia, Methane, Natural gas; and minimally, Nitrogen.

      • Anonymous

        I’m enjoying the debate guys. So the next question I suppose is, how do we make sure we use these volatile gases safely?

        • campbell

          for over 100 years, airships have been constructed with fabric, or laminate, envelopes. (the definition of “crazy” is to do the same thing over and over and expect different results….so, it’s crazy!)
          Instead, move on from 19th century technology…and pick up on materials from our own modern times.
          If we can build a Space Shuttle that can withstand the extreme heat of re-entry from space; we can use the SAME, or similar, types of materials to build completely fire-proof airships.
          One of the best examples is Aerogel; a material that is ultra lightweight, but has some structural strength similar to balsa wood…and can withstand heat from a blowtorch (Google up an “aerogel” “fireproof” video)

  • diamondagefan

    Neal Stephenson once wrote that the best lifting gas is vacuum. We just need to innovate our envelope materials a little harder, guys!

    • David Henry Parry

      And I thought I was the only one that spotted this!
      Carbon-reinforced spheres containing… nothing do have the best lifting capability BUT, unfortunately, the weight of the material needed to maintain that bubble of nothing, of vacuum, is currently too heavy for it to lift itself.

      Graphene promises to provide a reinforcing material, for lamination, that may be able to create a strong structure capable of creating a cavity of vacuum.

      BTW did I mention that the sphere is NOT the only minimum solid! Advances in topology are fascinating. The sphere may not be the best shape to try to mass manufacture that can safely hold a high vacuum as a building block for lifting bodies.

      The airships WILL return…

  • David Henry Parry

    BTW the Hindenburg n 1937 WAS designed to use helium, not hydrogen, BUT the usa refused to supply the Germans with helium.

    Mmmm… superior Europeans with a superior aviation technology scuppered by the usa’s mendacious behaviour??!!

    See a pattern developing? See Concorde for more details!

    The Hindenburg was a helium airship that wasn’t allowed to use helium by the americans and blew up thus destroying airships, a technology led by Europe, and allowing inferior ‘american’ winged tech to dominate the passenger market.

    History DOES repeat itself… if we allow the usa access to a box of matches!

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