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It was nearly a century ago when the iconic blimp, the Hindenburg, went down in flames. What promised to usher in a new era of lighter than air travel crushed the industry in a horrific tragedy. But that doesn’t mean blimps, or better referred today as semi-rigid airships, perished completely. Goodyear blimps are still around, continuing to provide aerial coverage of a variety of events. And based on the latest news, a company called Light Than Air (LTA) Research hopes to test its first modern airships next year. This time around, the expectations are of course even grander.

Led by Google’s cofounder, Sergey Brin, LTA Research appears ready to move ahead with its Pathfinder 1. Designed to be safer, lighter and environmentally friendly, LTA’s airships hope to provide large cargo services for humanitarian efforts. Since its founding in 2014, the startup has been relatively quiet, but nonetheless, ramping up operations quickly. In addition to its primary headquarters in San Francisco, it also leases space in Akron, Ohio. Interestingly, this second locale just happens to be where Goodyear first developed its own blimps in the 1930s. It would thus seem that LTA hopes to put lighter than air travel back on the map.

“We believe lighter than air technology has the capacity to speed up humanitarian aid by reaching remote locations with little infrastructure, and to lower carbon emissions for air and cargo transportation.” – Alan Weston, CEO of Lighter Than Air Research

Looking Back on Lighter Than Air Travel

The blimps of old that were created in the 1930s were the first lighter than air vessels. Gases, which weighed less than air, served to allow these inflated blimps the ability to float along. This offered significant opportunities not only for reduced use of fuel but also cargo space. In fact, the USS Akron and USS Macon, both designed by Goodyear for the U.S. Navy could carry five planes. For this reason, airships of the 1930s held tremendous promise. Of course, this came to a screeching halt when the Hindenburg caught fire, killing 36 people in the process.

In contrast to the Hindenburg, which used flammable hydrogen gas, other airships utilize helium. This is why Goodyear blimps continue to operate safely and have done so for years. But only recently has a renewed interest in lighter than air travel returned. LTA Research envisions such airships as a way to revolutionize air travel. This is especially important in humanitarian missions where large amounts of cargo and rescue may be needed. These aspects along with a advances in battery technologies encouraged Brin and others to revisit the idea of airships. (Read more about recent breakthroughs in anode battery technology in this Bold story!)

“Airships in general need less power. They gain lift by way of lighter-than-air gas. You don’t burn fuel to stay in the air. They consume less energy. Airships stay aloft for long periods of time and can travel long distances.” – Dan Grossman, Avian historian and Founder of airships.net

Modern Airship Designs

In terms of actual terminology, current lighter than air vessels are not technically blimps. Blimps do not have an internal framework structure. In fact, today’s Goodyear “blimps” do have a framework inside, which is why they’re referred to more accurately as semi-rigid airships. In a similar vein, LTA Research’s airships will also have such a framework. However, this is much more advanced in nature. Kilwell Fibrelab, a New Zealand company, is providing super-strong carbon fiber for both the Pathfinder 1 and Pathfinder 3. In addition to its strength, the framework is also very light, which is certainly advantageous for lighter than air travel.

An airship coming in for a landing
Lighter-than-air travel could be returning as a luxury travel choice.

The propulsion system for LTA’s airships will also not be using fossil fuels either. While helium will be used to keep the structure in the air, battery-powered systems will enable horizontal movements. These will thus be zero emissions aircrafts. They will also contain numerous individualized gas cells that will contain the helium itself. And most impressive will be the size of these airships. The Pathfinder 1, which will be tested in 2023, is 400 feet in length. And its successor, the Pathfinder 3, will be 600 feet and able to carry nearly 100 tons. Though not quite as long as the Hindenburg, it will be the largest existing air vehicle on Earth once completed.

“Helium is not flammable. It is a stable element. It’s inert. [The Pathfinder 1] is incomparably safer than Hindenburg was. But it’s also going to be safer for other reasons, including modern materials and modern engineering technology that were not available during the era of the Hindenburg, Akron, and Macon.” – Dan Grossman

LTA Research’s Rapid Growth

While LTA Research was founded in 2014 with support from Google, it has grown rapidly in those few years. Based in San Francisco, LTA began leasing the Moffitt Airfield from the U.S. Space Agency. At that time, its lease was roughly 131,000 for its use. Today, that figure is nearly $11 million. Though this might reflect some component of inflation, it primarily reflects the company’s accelerated progress. In addition to moving forward with the design of airships and a pending launch, it’s added a great deal of staff. In fact, it is currently recruiting engineers and other positions for its Akron, Ohio, site. Ultimately, LTA hopes to purchase the Akron facility for ongoing developments in lighter than air travel.

The addition of the Akron facility was noteworthy for a few reasons. For one, when constructed in 1929, it was the largest building in the world. At nearly 7 football fields in length, it remains one of the largest aerospace buildings in the world. Of course, it’s historical significance has to be acknowledged as well. It was the site where Goodyear built both the USS Akron and USS Macon. Thus, it’s not too surprising that this facility caught the attention of Brin and others. In their pursuit to modernize airships, why not blend a little of the old with the new? It would therefore seem LTA hopes to provide a little continuity as it strives to redefine lighter than air travel.

 

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