It's called a hybrid airship, and let's just put it this way: It's not your great-grandfather's zeppelin.
The Federal Aviation Administration recently approved a certification plan that would allow commercial flights by a potentially revolutionary new type of Lockheed Martin aircraft.
Instead of the classic blimp you might be thinking of, try to imagine something that's a cross between a helium-filled blimp and an airplane — though it looks more like an inflatable pillow with little propellers on the sides and tail fins. Basically, a hybrid airship relies upon lighter-than-air helium to provide 80 percent of the lift that keeps it aloft, and gets the other 20 percent from the aerodynamic lift that the body creates when it acts as an airfoil.
Put all that together, and the Lockheed Martin LMH-1 is an aircraft about the size of a football field, capable of carrying 47,000 pounds (21,3120 kilograms) of cargo and up to 19 passengers at a cruising speed of nearly 70 miles (113 kilometers) per hour. It also can land in a relatively short space (about seven times its length) and set down on flat terrain without moorings, due to its four hovercraft-like landing pads.
The latter allow the hybrid airship "to operate from unprepared areas including soil, sand, snow, ice, and even open water," says Lockheed Martin spokesperson Heather Kelso via email. The pad system "also grips the ground in the parking mode like a suction cup to keep the airship from moving laterally in shifting winds while loading and unloading."
Kelso says the airships could provide affordable transportation for heavy-lift cargo en route to distant site. "These airships require little to no fixed ground infrastructure and can launch, land and be serviced on unimproved surfaces, including water," she says.
That sort of flexibility could make hybrid airships a go-to form of transportation for parts of the world that have little transportation infrastructure — deserts, oceans, jungles, even the Arctic. For mining and oil-and-gas drillers, hybrid airships could transport big pieces of equipment to difficult-to-get-to places, and do it on the relative cheap.
Kelso explains that the new hybrid airship is full of technology that old-school 20th-century airships didn't have. It's lighter but also structurally strong, even though it doesn't have an inner frame. Also, electronic flight controls and sensing technology provide a big improvement over the old fashioned cables and pulleys tied to a ship-style yoke.
And flying is an automated process, with digital flight controls and sophisticated sensors to control the airship much more precisely than a human can. A hybrid airship should be able to automatically detect and correct for small weather disturbances, for instance, to stay on the pilot's intended flight path.
"One advantage of the hybrid airship is that it is more controllable than a lighter-than-air vehicle," adds Kelso.
Getting the hybrid airship through the FAA approval process was a challenge, says Kelso, in part because existing regulations didn't really fit what it can do. Instead, the agency had to blend different guidelines from airships, airplanes and helicopters.
But Lockheed Martin had one significant advantage, in that it already had demonstrated that the technology would work. Back in 2006, the half scale prototype vehicle P-791 flew in Palmdale, California, and successfully completed all flight test objectives.
Lockheed Martin and its reseller Hybrid Enterprises announced back in June that they would begin taking orders for the hybrid airship, with a goal of getting the first of the fleet aloft in 2018.