Its development has been absolutely fascinating to watch over the past few years and now after years of hard development work it is pleasing to know that the world’s largest airship that has been developed in Britain by Hybrid Air Vehicles will be floated for the first time next week ahead of ground testing and a debut UK flight which is expected to take place a few weeks later.
I have been up to see Hybrid Air Vehicles in a couple of occasions before but when I last went up to the Cardington, Bedfordshire base two weeks ago it was wonderful to see that the massive Airlander 10 airship was about to have the last of its four 350hp, 4-litre V8 direct injection, turbocharged diesel engines attached to carbon composite battens fixed to the 92 meter long body.
Once the final engine, cockpit and other fittings work is done and that includes the equally large ‘Hold’ that depending on what customers require can be fitted out or quickly transformed to heavy-lift equipment carrying capacity, trans-oceanic flight, special cargo’s or a large and important number of defence and remote access logistics capability or maybe for passengers, leisure tourism and many other purposes the airship will be deemed ready for action and rolled out. That event is sue to take place next week.
The rolling out of Airlander 10 and the start of the ground testing programme ahead of the first planned flight marks a key milestone in this remarkable and innovative development programme. Airlander 10 is truly massive and the privately owned British SME Hybrid Air Vehicles management team can be justifiably proud of what they have achieved.
This ‘vehicle’ may look just like however one might wish to imagine an airship should look like but believe me when I say that this one really is revolutionary from the front all the way to the back.
Moving the vehicle out of the massive hangar where it has been built begins a process that will see Airlander 10 entering what could well be a potentially very large £50bn global market for airships. And if you are tempted to think that airships are merely harping back to the past then I advise you to think again because unlike anything that has ever gone before I can tell you that Airlander 10 can and will provide users with not only all the above aspects of commercially based capability but also that it is also a technology that can play a very important role in future defence capability.
Privately and grant funded the programme has involved approximately £100 million of research and development spending. From a defence perspective the technology is transformative in that it can provide users with ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) Heavy-Lift or Comms capability at very low cost. Add to this a perspective for potential for the use of this long duration capability on border security, search and rescue, sensing, maritime patrol, early warning and non-military surveillance and one begins to see the potential that Airlander 10 can provide.
The UK Ministry of Defence has taken a keen interest in the programme and the number of potential world markets identified that could use this capability to great effect is extensive. Airlander are talking to a sizable number of potential customers around the world and the rolling out and first flight of the vehicle that will follow some weeks’ later is hugely significant. The number of enquiries provides strong evidence that demand to acquire the capability will follow and indeed, such is the strength that following on from Airlander 10 an even larger known as the Airlander 50 programme development is intended to follow. Another interesting point here is that while Airlander 10 will be shown as a manned/piloted aircraft it is also envisaged to be made available in an unmanned aerial vehicle capability form in due course. Of course, before that occurs regulatory hurdles will likely need to be resolved in some countries where Airlander might be used.
As the programme further develops the potential demand is envisaged to be somewhere in the region of 30 to 40 vehicles per annum once production starts in a couple of years’ time. While I see a strong potential for Airlander in the commercial heavy-lift and tourism role it is the defence aspects of Airlander that interest me most. Persistent wide area surveillance using a vehicle such as this that has multi-day to multi-week endurance and the ability to deploy C4 functions on board and on-ground, that can operate worldwide without host nation support and that is complimentary to other defence based assets is hugely important. The potential use in humanitarian based issues should not be ignored and particular where standard aircraft have no landing area available. Be it in the maritime, land, air or security based role, logistics (lift capacity is 50+ tons and vertical lift capability 20 tons) including ship to ship and outsize loads, critical equipment, combat and other supplies the potential for Airlander 10 is very large. From a commercial angle I would highlight the ease of potential use in very low and very high temperatures and the ability because of the vertical capability to land in towns and cities or where no aircraft or even helicopter can land.
Supported by UKTI, funded by private funds plus £3.4 million of Regional Growth Funding grants together with a £1.8 million EU Horizon 2020 grant having been secured and £3 million of private equity while management of Hybrid Air Vehicles have had to work hard to acquire support the bottom line is that they have developed an air vehicle that is a British development and that in the future could provide a new baseline for future UK commercial and defence based air power development.
Airlander is 80% by value from the UK and the supply chain is contained amongst a large range of mainly British companies with the predominance being those that I would classify as innovative SMEs. These are of course exactly the companies that the UK Government has identified as being the best source of future hi-tech growth for the future and that Britain needs.
Following the first flight and further testing Airlander 10 will be formally launched on the global and it is at this point that genuine interest already seen should start to turn into real order. The next phase is likely to secure 1,800 UK jobs and provide significant export based revenues for the UK long term. UK commitment through the MOD will of course be critical to the early success of Airlander 10 and I am sure that this will be forthcoming.
Conventional and vertical take-off and landing capability Airlander can hover like a helicopter while hoisting up to 40% of its designed payload of 20 tons. Range and payload of the vehicle far exceeds that of helicopters with a potential range of 2,600 nautical miles (4,815 kilometres) for Airlander 50. Flight capability is derived from a mix of aerodynamic lift and helium buoyancy. Height reached is around 16,000 feet and 5 days duration from the four diesel propulsion units that I believe have potential for close to 10,000 Shaft horsepower on the larger Airlander 50.
May I wish the team at Airlander great success. They deserve it and they have created a product that the UK can be proud. Airlander is an example of just what we can in the UK if we put our minds to it and are prepared to invest in research and development technology and think medium and long term.
CHW (London – 18th March 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel; 07710 779785