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Airships – for Simple and Sustainable Aviation


Part I:

The Problems of Traveling by Air

There is much worrying and discussion about air travel. The experienced problems are
presently mostly related to terrorist threats and the delays/annoyances caused by the
seemingly necessary security control. The argumentation in these seemingly endless
discussions rarely try to come to the roots of the problem, but we will go for the roots

The experienced problems with the common passenger airplanes are due to:

•The explosion sensitivity: It is too easy for a passenger to smuggle along a little
bomb which can cause the plane to fall down.

•The inability to fly slowly: The long runways needed banish airports to way
outside the central bus/metro networks they should have been located within.

•We might also mention the noisiness of the engines. VTOL planes (with Vertical
Take-Off and Landing) can slow down to a standstill, and they may become
usable for mass transport, but also these are noisy. The noisiness increases the
banishing effect.
In addition to the problems experienced by the passengers, there is the important
problem of sustainability, pertaining mainly to CO2 emission and other pollutions. The
proposed airship design will strongly decrease these emissions – particularly when
using solar powered operation. Big airships may be regarded as opportunities for
being able to employ big and powerful solar energy collectors.

These environmental issues are certainly very important, but there is widespread
awareness and rational thinking about atmospheric emissions, so we will now mainly
deal with aviation aspects for which illusions are prevalent: Does our craving for
speed and power give us real speed? Or does it just give us hassles, time waste and
High speed airplanes don't save us much time, as much time is wasted on security
control, technical problems, and on getting to and from those awkward airports. This
is due to the fact that this technology implies a balancing on the edge. Many technical
factors are critical: The integrity of the (explosion sensitive) airplane body, the air
traffic control (of planes unable to slow down), the integrity of landing wheels and the
surface they must roll on (so rapidly), the highly trained personnel (able to operate at
the technical edge), and so on.

In contrast to this, we have the airship, lifted by gas buoyancy. It is less explosion
sensitive than a plane, and can glide to and hover near a city center. We have now a
race between the tortoise and the hare, where the hare, as we know too well, has a
hazardous labyrinth to deal with.

It may be difficult for space age minds to think rationally about airships, but various
suggestions for improvement will now be presented.

Huge investments and infrastructure changes will be needed for replacing the planes,
but we needn't worry about that. Our alternative can start out as a funny cruise
alternative, and then gradually, due to its flexibility and simplicity, transform itself
from a recreational toy into a serious transport tool.

The main features of the following design are the abilities to:

•transform the airship shape between a fast mode and a safer mode (with
parachute shape)

•grab a mooring cable and align the ship along it

•have exchangeable modular balloons which may also store chemical and/or
mechanical energy

•be driven by solar energy

•have a modular payload, using e.g. exchangeable passenger cabins and battery
Part II:

A Multi-mode Airship
Airships differ strongly in steerability: from the simple balloon which just drifts with
the wind, to the more or less rigid dirigible which can be controlled in defiance of the
wind. The multi-mode airship to be proposed here is adjustable in this respect: It can
hover or cruise slowly, safely and quietly, and it can transform itself into a more
compact and rigid ship, less influenced by the wind and capable of higher speeds.

The Design
This airship is essentially a paraglider with three balloons attached under its canopy.
Hanging under it is a payload-carrying frame. This frame can hold one or more
passenger cabins. Various kinds of modules can be attached in the payload frame.
There will normally be a cockpit module fore and a battery module aft. The modules
should be able to slide along the frame – for load balancing and pitch neutralization.

Airship, fully opened.

The canopy will normally be more closed fore and aft –
perhaps down to the center of each balloon.
The top propellers are protected against the cable by the M-
shaped cable catcher.

A passenger cabin is ready to be attached into the payload

frame, between the cockpit and the battery module

The propellers are here positioned for hovering (or for pressing a too
light airship down towards the ground)
Each end of the long payload frame has a propulsion unit with propellers in its ends,
driven by electrical motors located in the middle of the freely rotatable propulsion unit
body. The canopy may be covered with flexible solar cells (polymer or nanocrystal),
connected to charge the battery module.

The straps under which the payload frame is hanging, can be wound up on reels
inside the long side tubes of the frame, so that the airship can transform itself between
being a paraglider/parachute (with the straps fully unwound) and a quite rigid airship,
capable of higher speeds and less wind-sensitivity (with the straps tightened).

The fore and aft straps are ropes running through the fore and aft edges of the
paraglider screen. If these ropes are tightened while in paraglider mode, the screen
becomes like a parachute, decreasing the forward movement of the airship. If they are
tightened while in rigid mode (with closed canopy) the airship gets a more
aerodynamic shape.

Two (or all three) of the balloons should be filled with helium. This may give enough
buoyancy for take-off when only the cockpit module is used, but when a passenger
cabin is attached, the motors on the payload frame are needed for take-off. We are
consequently talking about a hybrid airship. These are easier to control during windy
take-off and landing than a pure (fully balloon-lifted) airship, and the payload needn't
constantly be balanced against the gas buoyancy. A solid ground contact can be
ensured if the motors are reversed, so that they push the payload down towards the

The middle balloon might be filled with a combustible gas like methane – or perhaps
hydrogen. This balloon will then serve as a fuel tank for the motor mounted on top of
the airship. Methane has half the buoyancy of helium, but is more easily obtainable.
Natural gas is essentially methane, but with also a little ethane and other heavier
gases, so this will be cheap and practical.

The lightness of these fuel gases means the fuel will contribute to lifting rather than
having to be wasted on lifting itself. Their rather low buoyancy has the advantage that
the weight and buoyancy of the airship don't change much as the fuel is consumed. If a
still more stable buoyancy is needed, ethane can be used as fuel. It is about 3 % heavier
than air, so when ethane in the middle balloon has been burned up, the buoyancy of
the airship has changed only 1 %.
Mode Shifting
When the airship is fully opened, it functions as a motorized paraglider. The balloons
will keep the canopy raised, and the top motor will keep the ship up against the wind.
This may be the preferred operating mode during slow cruising, at least when the
wind is moderate. When higher speeds are needed, the airship can tighten its straps to
become more rigid and aerodynamic. This tension will also press the fuel gas out to
the top motor. The airship can also take off and land in the closed mode. This will be
most practical if the wind is strong. Tight closing can also reduce the balloon volume
somewhat – for buoyancy control.

The open mode will be good for emergency situations: Whenever the airship
experiences a problem with staying airborne, it just loosens its straps to descend
slowly like a parachute or (with also the fore and aft straps loosened) glide like a

Airships – open and closed.

The rightmost one has also emptied its middle (fuel gas)

An additional possible mode is: hot air balloon mode – if the airship is equipped with
a simple balloon for hot air. This can be stored in a box (with a burner and its fuel
tank) lying upon the middle part of the payload frame. When it is to be inflated, hot air
is first blown into it by a blower. When the hot air is able to hold up the top of the
balloon, a simple fuel burner suffices for completing the inflation process and for
keeping the airship airborne. As the fully opened airship already defines the volume to
be occupied by the hot air balloon, this balloon can be a very simple one which merely
expands to fill the volume between the straps and under the gas balloons (which
should be elastic, or have a low initial pressure, to allow for some additional expansion
caused by the heat from below). One or more horizontal straps between the two fore
straps, and similarly between the two aft straps, may be used for giving fore and aft
containment to the hot air balloon.
Propulsion and Steering

The airship has two different propulsion systems:

•The motors of the top propellers burn gas from the central balloon. It gives its
force near the balloons, where it is needed during forward flight, and also is
needed for pulling the airship up against the wind while in paraglider mode.
This remote-controlled propulsion unit can also be turned to the sides for

•Each end of the payload frame has a propulsion unit with propellers in its ends,
driven by electric motors located in the middle of the freely rotatable propulsion
unit body. A propulsion unit can place its propellers in horizontal orientation for
altitude changes, like during VTOL operation. (Vertical Take-Off and Landing)
The propellers can then be swung to a vertical position for forward (or
backward) flight. The propellers can also be swung sideways for steering.
The electric motors enable the airship to operate also if the air contains much
dust (like under vulcanic eruptions) – unlike ordinary aircraft, which must be
grounded under such conditions.
Biefelt-Brown effect propulsion may be feasible by applying high voltages to parts of the


The balloons of an airship must be designed to:

•contain a light gas which gives the buoyancy

•deal with the forces: connecting payload weight to balloon buoyancy, and
retaining an aerodynamically efficient form in spite of air forces
Placing simple balloons under a paraglider canopy assigns these two tasks to two
easily separable module types. Balloons are easily damaged and worn out, e.g. by
chemical influences compromising the gas tightness of the light fabric, or by e.g. bullet
holes. It is then advantageous to be able to exchange simple balloon modules which
need little of the complex force distribution structures, and to be able to do this
without performing complex surgery in a closed airship body. Some sort of Velcro-like
patches may be enough for keeping the balloons in place under the paraglider.

Energy Storage

The simplest way to store electrical energy is to use a battery pack, which should be
mounted as a module aft in the payload frame. Lithium-ion batteries have very high
energy density, but are very expensive. Molten salt batteries (like Zebra batteries) gives
almost the same energy density at a lower cost, but these batteries must be heated to
about 300° C. This should not be a problem in a professional and planned operation.
The battery heating may be done while lithium-ion batteries are used for the first part
of the flight.

Another alternative is to store energy in flywheels. They are normally designed to be

compact, but a large carbon-fiber flywheel (connected to a motor-generator) could be
suspended inside a balloon, where it would be well shielded against disturbances.

Flywheels normally operate in a vacuum in order to minimize air drag losses. It might
be practical to have a lightweight vacuum sphere in this well protected environment.
But if the flywheel runs in helium, the drag will be far weaker than in air. And if the
helium is heated by lost flywheel energy, it will become still lighter (provided its
balloon can expand somewhat), so the energy isn't really lost.


Mooring has traditionally been an awkward and labor demanding part of airship
operation, but in airship harbors having horizontal mooring cables, mooring should be
possible without any help from the ground. This operation would be more reliable if
the mooring place has windscreens, such as vertical sails a little larger than an airship.

The straight top is an important feature of the airship which is prepared for easy and
secure mooring, as this can align with a horizontal mooring cable. Another important
feature is having freely rotating (electric) propulsion units on the ends of the payload
frame. The top propellers may be used for pulling the ship up against the wind. If
there is significant wind, it will be advantageous to have a mooring cable going along
the wind direction.

The mooring cable above the airship will protect the ship against lightning in the
critical phase when the ship is about to get ground contact. It will also discharge static
electrical charges in a controlled manner. This is important if the ship uses
inflammable gases.

The mooring operation is as follows:

•The airship approaches the mooring cable from below, having the rear cable
grabber pulled all the way to the front, and trying to align its body with the

•When sufficiently aligned under the cable, the ship moves straight upwards, so
that the cable is caught in the bottom of the V-shaped structure, and both cable
grabbers can grab the cable.

•The front grabber holds the cable firmly, and the rear grabber moves backwards
to the rear end of the ship, securing also against rotation (jaw and pitch).

•The ship moves to the passenger platform, either by loosening its cable grips
and using propeller propulsion, or by being pulled in by a moving cable.
If the payload frame now moves in under a tongue-shaped roof, this roof will act as a
firewall which increases the safety when inflammable gases are used in balloons. (Gas
flames go upwards, but burning balloon parts fall down.)

The near end of the mooring cable is then lowered until the cabins sit on the platform.
The side edges of the roof will be near the straps under which the payload frame
hangs, so these side edges should be able to hold the straps firmly – to keep the cabins
in moored position.

(A simple but crude mooring method would be to let the airship move
forwards/downwards into the space between two fences. Such a fence can be a wind
screen or a cable fence with at least one horizontal cable. But both fences must be able
to yield rapidly if the ship is blown forcefully to the side before it is properly between
the fences.)

During take-off, the sequence of cable grabbing events is reversed: First the cable leads
the ship outwards, and then the aft cable grabber goes forwards and loosens its grip,
so that the ship turns against the wind and can fly away in a well-controlled manner.

As airships need no runways, the airports can be so compact that they can be near a
city center. For a coastal city, airships could approach along cables running from a
tower out in the sea. The entire airport could be on a platform or a float outside the
coast. The airport and the approach cable could also be shielded between tall
buildings, small mountains, or wind screens.

The multi-mode airship can start with simple balloon flight operation – with
passengers who just want to go up and look around. An extra balcony module in the
payload frame (or upon the roof of the cabin) will now be valuable.

The electric propulsion of the payload frame motors will now prove important:
Conventional noisy motors will destroy the whole soaring experience.

The next operation will be cruises to (and at) specific destinations – when steerability
is found reliable, and a destination service infrastructure is established. Only simple
mooring facilities will be needed by the airship itself, in addition to gas delivery and a
power grid connection for recharging the batteries.

If this operation is found reliable, regular passenger transport can commence. This will
compete with trains and conventional airplanes. A suitable operation area will be:
across the North sea, across the Baltic sea, and similar areas unsuitable for trains. The
competitor will now be the airplane. The airship will be more like a train with respect
to bomb sensitivity – particularly if separate luggage modules are mounted in the
payload frame. Much security control time can then be saved, particularly if
passengers can remain seated in cabins transported by a beamway from and to city
The airship can give the passengers more space (in lightweight cabins) than planes
can, so it can have decent sleeping quarters. This means the airship may be preferred
for quite long night flights.

Sustainable tourism implies changing attitude towards travelling. The prevalent

businesslike practice of jumping to a remote place should be discarded, and be
replaced by accepting that travelling implies being on the way. Travellers from
northern Europe should find it natural that if they intend to visit south Asia, they will
start and end the vacation with spending at least one day in the Mediterranean area.

Operation economy should be ensured when polluting and CO2-emitting aviation is

appropriately taxed.

Long Distances

An airship could join an air train for long-distance flights. The locomotive would be a
turboprop plane flying non-stop between e.g. England and the US east coast. It reels
out aft a carbon cable, 1-2 kilometers long, to which airships can attach themselves
when the air loc slows down to perhaps 100 km/h over England. After an airship has
grabbed the cable, it can move forwards towards the preceding one, so such a train
could get a moderate air resistance. The train will then increase the speed to perhaps 6-
700 km/h, suitable for an overnight journey with berths/sleeperettes. In the New York
area, the airships will detach in the reversed order, and some of them may continue to
Boston or Washington DC. Other airships will then attach for the eastbound flight – or
for going to the west coast. Daytime long-distance flights may be more suitable for
cargo. Before an airship joins the train, it may visit a transit platform where passengers
may go over to the airship for the right destination. Personnel who do on board
custom/passport/security controls may be exchanged there. They can get decent space
for their work on an airship. Such operations will be quite simple with airships, as they
have VTOL capability.

Two airships (solar cell covered) have attached themselves to

the cable of an air train.
The rightmost one has now pulled its rear cable grabber all the way back, so it is fully

The first airship attaching will probably be for fueling and crew exchange. The air loc
flight will probably become quite computer controlled. Air locs with abundant energy
can easily give some of it to the airships. The cable could transmit electric power both
ways, but the simplest way to get power from the air loc would be to simply use the
electric propulsion motors as generators and their propellers as windmills. If the
airships have much energy (in sunlight), they can contribute to the propulsion by
running their propulsion frame propellers.

The air loc should be able to fly at 100-700 km/h, so a variable wing may be required. A
small drone with stabilizing fins or wings should be attached to the other end of the
cable. It will have a variable pitch propeller, and this should have three operating

•Blades turned for giving maximum air resistance – while airships are attaching/

•Blades turned for giving minimum air resistance – during normal flight

•Blades partly turned – for windmill operation during battery recharging (Power
is needed mainly for turning the blades)
The air loc could be pulling a shield which can be opened and closed like a flower. It is
closed like a bud for take-off and landing. For normal flight, it is opened to be a shield
in front of the first airship – to relieve it of the speed wind pressure.

An alternative to the air train is the air caravan: An airship goes in the front, equipped
with a reinforced front plate, and it carries the cable assembly instead of a passenger
cabin. The caravan will be mainly for daytime operation, as all the airships must use
their propulsion systems.

Biefelt-Brown Propulsion

Such long trains are well suited for electric field propulsion based on the Biefelt-Brown
effect. This could be done in two ways:
•For each airship individually, as mentioned above: by applying high voltages to
parts of the canopy. These voltages will to some extent be added up by a series
connection – like in T. T. Brown's gravitator.

•By applying a positive voltage to the locomotive and a negative voltage to the
rear drone. If air is ionized, the total electric dipole strength will be reduced by
an ionic short-circuit, but if the train can fly in 700 km/h, ionized air may not
manage to fly to the oppositely charged pole.
The air loc with the positive electrode should be at least 100 meters ahead of the first
airship, or the first airship in a caravan should have a positively charged shield.
(Intermediate airships may be given intermediate voltages, but in the non-linear
manner required for the Biefelt-Brown effect: strongest gradient behind at the negative
pole.) Either of these two would enable the train, with its field and ionized air, to
behave as a large streamlined entity which would protect each airship against the
strong speed wind. (This design sketch doesn't take side in the electrogravity vs. ion
wind schism.)

Safety and Security

The airship will hopefully be as explosion resistant as a train or beamway, so that it

will not be more interesting for terrorists than any other meeting place – particularly if
luggage is placed in a separate container module. This will reduce the security control
delays to a minimum. Customs and passport control could be done on the airship, as
this will be roomier than a plane, and may even have a separate office module for such
controls. Undesired passengers/luggage can be removed during a transit platform

A balloon will be easy (and tempting) to shoot a hole through, but it may be designed
to be made self-repairing: The inside of its fabric could be covered with a low-density
sticky plastic foam which will be caused to form a patch by out-streaming gases in a
hole. If one of the three balloons is destroyed, the VTOL propulsion units may be able
to give a not too hard landing – and/or the airship will open up to go into parachute or
paraglider mode.
It may be feasible to make carbon fiber armored balloons bullet-proof, because the
fabric needn't be very strong. This is because of its unique ability to yield rapidly to a
sudden local impact, as a light gas behind the fabric will only weakly resist the sudden

The use of fuel gas is likely to be restricted to cargo flights, but it might be found
usable for passenger flights: A fire in a fuel gas balloon will occur some distance above
passenger cabin – particularly when the airship is in an open mode. The strength of the
canopy should be based on carbon fibers, which are able to withstand high
temperatures, so the airship may still be able to function in parachute or paraglider
mode during and after a gas fire. If not, cabins should bail out in their own parachutes.
Cabins should be designed to stay afloat if they land in the sea, either by having thick
and light floor and lower walls, or by having self-inflating floaters.

In contrast to the conventional all in one airship design, the present design separates
the passengers from the balloons, so that both sabotage and cargo explosion damage
will be a smaller threat to the ship.

An airship should be boardable from anti-terrorist helicopters, and is not easily

crashed, so it would not be suitable for hijacking.

VTOL operation is normally a precarious balancing act, but will be a simple and safe
operation for an airship, which will always be kept upright by its balloons.

Police Operations

Helicopters are useful for various police operations, but due to their complexity and
risky operations, only the large police departments in metropolitan areas can have
helicopters. This was demonstrated during the terrorist attack in Norway on July 22.
2011. The police in Oslo had a helicopter, but no staff able to use it due to the summer
vacation. Criminals will of cause notice this and strike in the periods of weakness. The
solution will be to use airships instead of helicopters, because airships can be running
in passenger transport, particularly across the sea stretches of northern and southern
Europe. Through a cooperation between the police and airship companies, an airship
can be requested for police action while the special police unit is preparing for action.
Shooting down a helium-filled airship is a slow process, and may be really difficult to
do with light weapons from the ground if the airship fires guided missiles from a high

An airship is an asymmetrical weapon, as it is impractical to have and to use airships

for crimes, e.g. as a getaway vehicle, even if the criminals intend to switch to a car.

Needed during Volcanic Activity

During the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull in the spring of 2010, the
air traffic over most of western Europe was halted for days – because the jet motors of
the planes couldn't deal with the airborne ashes.

The airship's electric motors will be able to withstand large amounts of such particles.
Besides, the “raincoat” of this ship will give protection against quite warm and heavy
particle falls.

This may seem rather unimportant now, but when the supervolcano under
Yellowstone explodes (– any year now), much heavier ash falls will persist worldwide
for years, and such alternative air transport will really be needed.

Buoyancy Calculations

The balloons shown in the illustrations have the following volumes:

•23 000 m3 for the middle balloon (102 meters long)

•18 500 m3 for each side balloon (89 meters long)

Total volume: 60 000 m3. If the middle balloon is filled with a fuel gas, total volume is
reduced to 39 300 m3 when 90 % of this gas (20 700 m3) has been burnt up.

Gas  Air Hydrogen Helium Methane Natural Ethan

Property \ He gas e
H2 CH4 C2H6

Molecular 29 2 4 16 17-18 30

Buoyancy 0 27 25 13 11-12 -1

Buoyancy, 0 1.205 1.116 .580 .5


Buoyancy in
tons* 69 67 54.6 53
for 60 000 44 42.6 42.4
for 39 300

25.5 MJ 36 MJ 39 MJ
energy 70 MJ
for 1 m

528 GJ 740 GJ 807 GJ 1448
147 MWh 206 224 GJ
for 20 700
MWh MWh 402
*: with helium in the side balloons, which will then contribute with lifting 41.3 tons

Energy data source: Wikipedia articles for the gases, plus this Wikipedia article.

If maximum buoyancy is needed (and safety is less important, or helium is not

available), hydrogen is used in all three balloons. Buoyancy: 72.3 tons.
If the buoyancy should be kept unchanged while fuel gas is burned, a mix of 7 %
methane and 93 % ethane could be used. Buoyancy: 41.3 tons.

Olav Næss, November 2007 - August 2011