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Are Airships Making a Comeback?

Airships, once relics of a bygone era, are soaring back into the spotlight, buoyed by advancements in technology and a growing emphasis on sustainable transport. These gentle giants of the sky promise a greener future, captivating the imagination with their serene grace. Could they be the answer to our modern travel woes? Float along with us to explore the renaissance of these skyborne leviathans.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

The first powered, controlled flight in history is credited to the airship. On September 24th, 1852, Henri Giffard, a Frenchman, travelled 27 km (16.7 miles) from Paris to Trappes in his steam-powered airship. More than 50 years before the Wright Brothers' historic flight, Giffard's flight is remembered less often because of the slow speed of airships relative to aeroplanes.

In 1900, the flight of the rigid-shelled LZ1 Luftschiff Zeppelin marked the beginning of the first Golden Age of Airships. This continued until 1937, when the Hindenburg - the largest aircraft ever built at 250 meters long (820 feet) - burst into flames, and accompanied by much dramatic media attention, brought the downfall of public faith in airships. Although airships meant to carry civilians were not manufactured after the disaster of the Hindenburg, the United States military has built several hundred airships throughout the 20th century, used for paratrooper training and convoy escort.

Early airships.
Early airships.

In 1997, the airship made a slight comeback, with the launch of the Zeppelin NT. The new airship was created by Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH (ZLG), based in Friedrichshafen, Germany. ZLG was founded in 1993 as a spinoff from the original champions of the Golden Age of Airships, the Zeppelin company. Three Zeppelin NTs have since been made, used so far only for joyrides and advertising space. One has been sold to a Japanese company.

Though small, non-rigid airships like those seen at sporting events have dominated the lighter than air market since the 1930s, several firms are currently designing a new generation of large, rigid airships.
Though small, non-rigid airships like those seen at sporting events have dominated the lighter than air market since the 1930s, several firms are currently designing a new generation of large, rigid airships.

The Zeppelin NT, being built on the foundation of 60 years of additional technological advancements, is vastly superior to its predecessors both in terms of safety and cost. Instead of having a rigid all-aluminum frame, the NT uses a semi-rigid frame made primarily out of carbon fiber, with girders of aluminum. 75 meters long (246 feet) and only 1000 kilograms (2200 pounds), the NT is filled with the non-flammable, non-reactive gas, helium. With maximum payload and a full fuel tank, the NT is not quite lighter-than-air, resulting in a net downward force of about 600 kg (1,323 pounds), which is negated by tilting the propellers slightly downward during level flight.

Modern airships are based on the same basic principles as the earliest Zeppelins, however they make use of composite materials.
Modern airships are based on the same basic principles as the earliest Zeppelins, however they make use of composite materials.

The airship has a top speed of 125 km/h (77 mph), with 70 km/h (44 mph) being a more typical cruising speed for tourist flights. It is capable of traveling about 900km (560 miles) without refueling, and staying aloft for almost 24 hours. Commercial flights are offered by the DZR, a subsidiary of ZLG. Several dozen flights per year operate around Lake Constance, which is adjacent to the city of Friedrichshafen. The flights range from half an hour to two hours, at a cost of approximately 150 euros per hour.

The Zeppelin NT may just be the beginning of a new Golden Age of Airships. Engineers and researchers around the world have begun to turn their attention back to airships since the successful 1997 flight. Advances in fabrics, solar/fuel-cells, and batteries will soon make airships into attractive platforms for observation and telecommunications. Only a few times slower than airplanes, airships may one day be reemployed as a low-cost means of transporting goods and passengers around the world. One might speculate that hundreds of new airships will be manufactured before 2020 arrives.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllTheScience contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Learn more...

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    • Early airships.
      By: lynea
      Early airships.
    • Though small, non-rigid airships like those seen at sporting events have dominated the lighter than air market since the 1930s, several firms are currently designing a new generation of large, rigid airships.
      By: itsallgood
      Though small, non-rigid airships like those seen at sporting events have dominated the lighter than air market since the 1930s, several firms are currently designing a new generation of large, rigid airships.
    • Modern airships are based on the same basic principles as the earliest Zeppelins, however they make use of composite materials.
      By: cityanimal
      Modern airships are based on the same basic principles as the earliest Zeppelins, however they make use of composite materials.