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The History And Future Of Blimp Technology


You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Blimps, zeppelins, dirigibles - these slow-moving airships of the sky have been around for hundreds of years, if you want to throw in hot-air balloons in with that. But why is it that the only blimps we see these days are those hovering over sporting events?


Was the fate of the airship sealed with the crash of the Hindenburg? Has the age of the airship come and gone? Perhaps not, because one of the airship's innovators may be the U.S. military.

Talking - here to talk about the history and future of airships are my guests: Brandon Buerge, he's an aerodynamicist and lead scientist at Guardian Flight Systems in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Thanks for being with us today.

Mr. BRANDON BUERGE (Aerodynamicist; Lead Scientist, Guardian Flight Systems): It's my pleasure, Ira. Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Tom Crouch is a senior curator of the Division of Aeronautics at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. Good to talk with you again, Tom.

Mr. TOM CROUCH (Senior Curator, Division of Aeronautics, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum): Hi, Ira. It's been a while.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CROUCH: It has.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: He and I did some stuff together many years ago. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Let me ask you, Brandon, have rumors of the death of the airship been greatly exaggerated?

Mr. BUERGE: Greatly exaggerated. I think the future of airships is larger than its past in terms of numbers and significance to the world economy.

FLATOW: Tom, give us a thumbnail sketch on how long airships have been around.

Mr. CROUCH: Well, you know, from the time of the invention of the balloon in the 1780s, people wanted a balloon they could propel, they could make it go where they wanted it to go.

So the dream of the airship goes all the way back to the invention of the balloon, but it really isn't until the 1850s that a fellow, a Frenchman named Henri Giffard, built the first kind of semi-successful airship.

It had a top speed of about five miles an hour. These early (technical difficulties) in the late 19th century were either steam or electrically powered. So propulsion tended to be a problem. And it really wasn't until the turn of the century, between 1900 and 1907, 1908, that Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, after whom zeppelins are named, really turned the things into a practical reality.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And, of course, that terrible crash of the Hindenburg in New Jersey gave a sort of a bad picture to airships, which has lasted ever since, and until now that we have all these blimps going to sporting events.

But Brandon, what about the future? Where might we see the resurrection of airships?

Mr. BUERGE: Well, Ira, imagine if you had a fuel-efficient, large-scale cargo capability that didn't require an airport. I mean, ultimately, as civilian operators leverage the technology that the military is funding the development of right now, anywhere that that kind of capability would be useful - I mean, the list is literally endless, from humanitarian, search and rescue, bulk cargo, mining in remote areas, all these things.

FLATOW: I was reminded of it this morning. Let me must remind everybody, our number is 1-800-989-8255 if you'd like to tell us where you'd like to see airships being used.

As you sit in traffic, I watched a long line of traffic and all these trucks, and I'm saying, hey, you know, if you had an airship, you could put all this cargo on a truck and move it from one side of New York to the other and go right over the traffic. Why couldn't you do that and maybe land it in Lakehurst, New Jersey, again?

Mr. BUERGE: Well, you absolutely could, and you could go one step further than that. For example, in Haiti, in the aftermath of the recent earthquake, there were choke points in the airport and the seaports, and what was really needed was what you'd call point-of-need delivery.

And with an airship, particularly the modern airships, even of the hybrid, lifting-body hybrid variety that the military is working with right now, often you can do without a ground infrastructure.

So you could carry very large, outsized cargoes and deliver them right to where they might need to go. And in the case of your traffic jam, that means instead of going from the factory to the train tracks to the seaport to the boat, back to the trains, back to the trucks and then to Wal-Mart, you could go from the factory to the Wal-Mart distribution center and skip the five steps in between, saving a lot of money, saving a lot of road congestion - conveniently, you dont have to repave the air - and saving fuel in the meantime.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And how close are we to this happening? Is anybody actually working toward this end?

Mr. BUERGE: Well, absolutely. It's not a secret that the airship, the basic idea behind the airships that they're developing for surveillance right now will be readily they lend themselves very well to heavy-lift applications at a lower altitude.

When you've got a large airship, you've got two choices. You can either carry a little bit to a high altitude or a whole lot at a lower altitude.

And once a military application serves to legitimize these airships as something other than historical novelties and advertise - flying billboards, I think the willingness of venture capitalists and cargo companies and operators to embrace the technology - particularly once it's been proven in living memory - will cause a real explosion in demand for this vehicles.

FLATOW: Yeah, that's the second time you've talked about military activities legitimizing it. Tell us about what do you mean? Is the military going to be using blimps?

Mr. BUERGE: It appears so. Just this week, after a long procurement process, the Army awarded Northrop Grumman and Hybrid Air Vehicles of the U.K. a contract for more than half-a-billion dollars that's more money than the industry has seen probably in the last 40 years together to build what they call the Long-Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle.

This is intended to operate in Afghanistan. It'll be deployed in about 18 months. And specifications are really stunning, and highlight the strengths of airships.

It's to operate at 20,000 feet above sea level and stay on-station for up to three weeks. And it's that kind of persistence, that ability to stay on-station ad provide an unblinking stare that appeals to the Army in the short term in Afghanistan. And it's something that no other kind of air vehicle can do, because all other air vehicles - well, they don't make use of buoyancy.

FLATOW: Is it meant to be a surveillance vehicle or an attack platform, or we don't know, from up there?

Mr. BUERGE: It's a surveillance vehicle, primarily.

FLATOW: So it's not taking over the role of the drones that are out there. It's just going to sit and loiter and watch.

Mr. BUERGE: That's right. This is a surveillance platform, chiefly.

FLATOW: And at 20,000 feet, it's above the ability of anybody on the ground to really hit it with something.

Mr. BUERGE: Yes. Yeah - nominally speaking, anyway. I can't get into the details of safe ranges and whatnot. But, yeah, 20,000 feet is considered a safe altitude.

And there's other mitigating factors. I mean, it's very difficult. You think blimps are large and they're relatively slow. You would assume that they're easy to shoot down, by extension. But that's not the case.

They are pressure vehicles. That is to say they're inflated, but to a very, very low pressure. And you can tear quite a large hole in an airship or an aerostat, and you won't notice for days...

FLATOW: Really?

Mr. BUERGE: ...because the leakage rates are so slow. It's what's called a slow-fail system. So in the event that somebody were able to hit an airship and put a big hole in it, it wouldn't necessarily be a catastrophe. I might just terminate the mission early.

FLATOW: Tom, but that's really - we've come full-circle with airships. Weren't they used militarily at the beginning?

Mr. CROUCH: They were. The use of balloons, Ira, for aerial reconnaissance, surveillance, again, goes back to the 18th century. The French used them during the wars of the French Revolution. And, of course during the American Civil War, Thaddeus Lowe established a balloon corps for the Union army that operated for the first three years of the war. And the Confederates used them, as well.

And coming all the way down to the First World War, of course, observation balloons, kite balloons, were still really critically important for aerial reconnaissance, even as late as the First World War.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number here, if you'd like to call us. We're talking let's go to line two. How do we get to line two? We're going to -let's see if we can. Let's go to Richard in Long Island. Hi, Richard.

RICHARD (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

RICHARD: Okay. You're talking very optimistically about airships, but there's been a number of attempts to develop them over the past 40 years, since World War II. But the major thing I keep thinking about is the shortage of helium we're suffering.

FLATOW: Good point. Aren't we suffering from a shortage of helium, Brandon?

Mr. BUERGE: Well, there's been talk of that with the - I believe it's just a federal helium reserve being sold off. But, no, there's a number of sources there's a lot more demand for helium than there was a few decades ago. That may be what your caller is referring to. You know, it used to be party balloons and not much else, but now there's a lot of manufacturing processes that demand helium, as well.

But helium is naturally occurring, and as far as I'm aware, and as far as the best studies within the industry are concerned, we're okay for the foreseeable future.

Conveniently, it's not consumed when you operate an airship. You're not burning the helium, and the leakage rates are very, very low. So you only have to make up a small percentage of helium on an annual basis. So the actual consumption rate is manageable.

FLATOW: Tom, do you agree?

Mr. CROUCH: I do. Large balloons, helium-filled, at theme parks, you know, that can take up 20, 30 people at a time, Ira, will remain inflated essentially for a year in almost constant use during good weather. So modern materials, again, do mitigate against the loss of a lot of helium.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to John(ph) Urbandale, Iowa. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. My question is about the capacity. How much weight would these be able to haul? I was in Vietnam as a Marine and they put things on helicopters, you wouldn't believe, 60-foot towers for guard compounds and stuff like that. And these things were heavy. And I'm wondering that without a whole lot of energy used, what is the capacity going to be for shipping goods this way?

FLATOW: Good question. Anybody? Brandon, you want to take a crack at that?

Dr. BUERGE: Sure. Well, your caller hits on, probably, the key appeal of this technology. He said - he pointed out, without a lot of energy, you could carry a lot of stuff this way. That is exactly right. This is a scalable technology. So, to answer the question of how much stuff can you carry, it's how big a ship do you want to build.

Nominally, designs this for, you know, 10- and 20-ton cargo capacity ships are relatively, technically, pretty low risk. In fact, you know, the Northrop design is about the same size as a 20-ton capacity lifting body hybrid cargo version would be. And 20 tons is probably low-end of the useful - economically speaking - the low end of the useful cargo capacity. But you can quickly get into 100- and 500-ton sizes merely by scaling up. It scales more easily than aircraft do because, again, using buoyant lift, and so it shares a lot in common with ships and also it scale very well.

Ultimately, the Army would like to be able to load an entire battalion and all of its equipment and support gear into one or two of these ships and fly it from their fort to the point of need, again, with very little infrastructure. So the scalability is very promising. And the ability to deal with the - in a green manner with all carbon footprint is a bonus.

FLATOW: Tom Crouch, didn't Navy have designs - Navy, so to speak, designs for airships early on to do thing with them?

Dr. CROUCH: No, indeed, Ira. Beginning - again, before the First World War and during the First World War, the German navy used an airship fleet. In fact, they were the world's first strategic bombers, Zeppelin airships used, from 1915 through 1917. And during the years between the wars, during the 1920's and the 1930's, the U.S. Navy built and operated airships as well: Shenandoah, Los Angeles, Akron, Macon. And the notion was to use them, not for cargo carrying and that sort of thing, but for scouting for the fleet.

These things - at least Akron and Macon - actually had contingents of airplanes onboard. They could carry up to five small scout fighter airplanes a piece. And they could launch them in flight and they can retrieve them in flight, too. They could bring them back onboard. So the notion was that you would send one of the airships out to search for the enemy fleet. And I mean, you've got this thing that's over a hundred feet long and painted silver, so they're going to kind of see it coming, you know?

So they would launch the airships and they would fly out ahead of the airship and find the fleet and come back and report. And so, that was the strategic notion for using airships by the United States Navy. Of course, from the First World War through the 1960's, blimps, that is pressure airships, Zeppelins are rigid airships. So you have a rigid frame, so that if you take all the hydrogen or helium out, the thing keeps it shape because of the internal frame.

FLATOW: Let me just interrupt to remind everybody that this SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow...

Dr. CROUCH: The pressure...

FLATOW: ...talking with Tom Crouch. Go ahead.

Dr. CROUCH: I'm sorry, Ira.

FLATOW: It's okay.

Dr. CROUCH: The pressure airships, blimps, were used for any submarine patrol during the two world wars and convoy escort, that kind of thing. And by the 1960's, they were using them as a component of the distant early warning system.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And if you're right, Brandon, there's this big contract that's going out to Northrop Grumman, who happens to be one of the underwriters of SCIENCE FRIDAY. I guess we might be seeing them again.

Dr. BUERGE: It looks that way in the relatively near future. This is pretty -the contract is large, but it's short in duration, I think 18 months is the target.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you mean they'll just be flying? You mean it'll take that long to develop or more - that's how long they'll be deployed for?

Dr. BUERGE: That's the goal for deployment, or at least testing. So I mean, we could see them flying within the next year and a half.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Are there any novel uses that we haven't thought of, that you might use an airship for? I mean, we know - we talked about heavy lifting, we talked about the military. We talked about maybe launching a plane or two off of them. I guess, we won't know what the new uses are until somebody thinks of it.

Dr. BUERGE: Well, sure. I mean...

Dr. CROUCH: Well, you know...

Dr. BUERGE: use that would be a lot of fun - I think, first, the industry is going to have to establish commercial legitimacy in a non-advertising role.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. BUERGE: Once that is established and a ship - I'm sorry - the industry reaches a critical mass in terms of engineering skills and manufacturing capability and operators who know how to operate airships, I think you'll see natural expansions into niche markets.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. BUERGE: I wouldn't be surprised, in 20 years, to see a cruise ship, that is, a cruise airship. You know, airships aren't going to get you from London to Hong Kong very quickly, but it would make for an enjoyable ride with the...

Dr. CROUCH: Just like the old days.

Dr. BUERGE: ...kind of views you can't get...

FLATOW: Yeah, just like the...

Dr. BUERGE: ...anywhere else.


Dr. CROUCH: Well, hopefully not just like the old days.

FLATOW: Well, not like them coming down like they...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: They were hydrogen-filled.

Dr. BUERGE: Yeah, we fixed that with the use of an inert gas. Instead of hydrogen, we use helium. So you can stick a match to it and nothing bad will happen.

FLATOW: All right. We've run out of time. I want to thank both of you for taking time to be with us. Tom Crouch, senior curator of the Division of Aeronautics at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington. Brandon Buerge is an aerodynamicist and lead scientist at the Guardian Flight Systems in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Thank you both for taking time to be with us.

Dr. BUERGE: My pleasure, Ira.

Dr. CROUCH: Thanks, Ira.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: We're going to take a break and come right back - stay with us - change gears and talk about Father's Day and geeky gifts you can have. So stay with us. We'll be right back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.