The rise of the solar airship

Sensemaking / The rise of the solar airship

It's the comeback of the dirigible as Canadian company designs a functional, agile and fossil-free range of solar hybrid airships.

By Roger East / 08 Feb 2012

New concepts keep coming out to boost faith in the future of airships. The latest sees Canadian company Solar Ship touting a proposed new range with electric motors, and a wing surface covered with solar photovoltaic arrays to charge their batteries. 

It follows the US military’s investment in low-carbon fuel-efficient hybrids, designed to combine the advantages of airship buoyancy and conventional aircraft propulsion [see 'Heirs to the air?']. The Solar Ships are, in a sense, hybrids as well. While they are helium-filled, they use an aerodynamic wing shape to provide more than half their lift. Solar Ship says there are big advantages in making them heavier rather than lighter than air. They don’t have to be so bulky to fly, they won’t need mooring to stop them floating away while you are loading, and they’ll cope better with wind. 

The company is proposing a range of three sizes. The little Caracal, intended for reconnaissance and getting into remote places, should cope with a 750kg payload, land on a 50-100 metre airstrip, and cover 2,500km at up to 120kph. The Chui will be three times as big and go twice as far, while the Nanuq is intended as a large freight carrier that can shift 30 tonnes with an intercontinental range.

Solar Ship’s pitch is a powerful combination, offering transport without fossil fuels, roads or runways. So far, though, showing off the reality of solar flight is still the preserve of pioneer planes such as Solar Impulse [see 'Solar plane logs 26 hour flight']. Solar Ship has built a working prototype of its revolutionary ‘dirigible blimp’ – but, for the moment, it needs an internal combustion engine to fly. – Roger East

Photos: Hemera / thinkstock

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