Investment in ‘hybrid air vehicles’ takes off

Sensemaking / Investment in ‘hybrid air vehicles’ takes off

US defence giant builds low-carbon aircraft which combine conventional aerodynamics with potential for heavy lifting.

By Irma Allen / 09 Aug 2011

US defence giant builds low-carbon aircraft which combine conventional aerodynamics with potential for heavy lifting.

Conventional airships rely almost entirely on helium’s ‘lighter-than-air’ buoyancy, making them fairly unstable, weather-sensitive and slow-moving [see ‘Transport of Delight’].

Hybrids mix this with ‘heavier-than-air’ aircraft technology – including power-generated aerodynamic lift and thrust vectoring. This means they can carry heavier loads and travel faster than an airship, but use less fuel than conventional jets. The concept dates back several decades, but is only now scaling-up after experimental phases in the last ten years.

An important feature for current investors is a hovercraft landing system instead of wheels, which means the hybrids can be anchored through suction on land or water, without the need for airport infrastructure. The benefits of this for use in remote and austere locations have attracted the attention of mining and military investors.

In March 2011, US defence giant Lockheed Martin was contracted to design and deliver three SkyTugs, capable of hauling 20-1,000 tonnes, by Canadian investors Aviation Capital Enterprises. Based on Lockheed’s P-791 2006 prototype, the first ‘SkyTug’ will be delivered by 2012. Oil and gas will be the initial clients, including Canadian oil sand extractors. In June 2010, a partnership involving British-based Hybrid Air Vehicles and global security company Northrop Grumman won a $517 million US-military contract to deploy a SkyCat in Afghanistan next year. This vehicle, larger in size than a football pitch, will act as an all-seeing eye. It can fly at 20,000ft for three weeks straight, still burning 70% less fuel per tonne-kilometre than conventional aircraft.

While ‘environmentally-friendly oil sand exploitation’ sits uncomfortably, perhaps hybrids’ heavy lifting, low-carbon, low fuel cost credentials are also promising elsewhere. Might these investments lead to alternatives for freight transportation? Beyond niche advantages, Forum for the Future’s transport expert Rupert Fausset is cautious: “90% of international trade is by relatively energy efficient shipping, difficult to trump by air. This means that encouraging further air freight, even by airship, isn’t desirable.”

The greatest opportunity, Fausset argues, lies with passenger transport. And in this, too, designers are upping the game. Jean-Marie Massaud’s luxurious Manned Cloud sky-hotel – complete with restaurant, library and gym – is set to offer round-the-world trips by 2020. Equally forward-thinking, US manufacturer Millenium Airship Inc, has bought rights to the certified-carrier company, American Airship Airlines. While current investment costs are daunting, these ventures suggest it’s a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ the business case matures. – Irma Allen

Image credit: Lockhead Martin

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