Luffships Ltd (LSL) is a UK business, founded to exploit the gift that nature provides for buoyancy from the atmosphere – enabling flotation in the air. This natural ability was first used by people 1000s of years ago for small floating lanterns in the sky, a delight to behold continuing today. Even so, please think about their materials’ environmental effect.
Atmospheric buoyancy, which needs lighter-than-air (LTA) technology to be effective, is a difficult concept to understand because the effect on us is so small (hardly noticeable, generally ignored) and doesn’t need power to function. It just occurs!
However, it clearly works/can be used and in water the effect is obvious, applied in the same way – Archimedes’ principle. Flotation aids (e.g., life vests) often are used to help people float in water. Well, that’s what aerostats do to help people float in the atmosphere. They are just necessarily very big, exceptionally light (LTA) soft (like pillows) flotation aids for the purpose.
LSL works to enable the benefits of atmospheric flotation in compatible ways, minimising harm to the environment – believing aircraft generally should be that way. After all, our atmosphere is a precious thing supporting life. Harmonious, sustainable ways thus are needed.
LSL also views air-currents as a natural way for conveyance to use for air-transport (proven possible by Piccard and Jones) instead of just discharging exhaust products from thirsty power plants pushing through the air every day (as aeroplanes do) polluting it while consuming finite oil resources – leaving problems for generations to come.
LSL instead works to enable flotation and natural conveyance methods harnessing the atmosphere as possible for flight. LSL also works to introduce more efficient low-energy methods for locomotion using energy to power things from replenishable sources (e.g., solar).
Historians tell us that people first took to the air in 1783 – the Montgolfier brothers, leading the show with their hot-air aerostat, closely followed by Prof Charles and Robert in a much smaller hydrogen (H2) filled balloon. These buoyant aircraft still are popular today, considered to be ways for environmentally friendly flight that started the aviation industry. Tethered aerostat versions also are widely used buoyant aircraft types fulfilling high aerial-platform duties.
Whilst hot-air is useful, adopted by most balloon businesses, LSL is mainly interested in less common but more efficient LTA-gas filled aerostat methods; considered to be the better way for long endurance aircraft providing aeronautical services.
LSL provides LTA technology R&D services for buoyant aircraft, fabric-structures and associated ground infrastructure products enabling needed aviation industry capability today.
Airships are a main LSL objective. They are dirigible types developed from balloons that first began to appear in the latter half of the 1800s. Even so, they didn’t attain the merit of being dirigible (able to pursue a particular route) until Santos Dumont with his No. 6 won the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize on 19 Oct 1901 for controlled flight over a set figure 8 course rounding the Eiffel Tower.
Following principles established by Jean Baptiste Meusnier (1784), who proposed an elongated aerostat based on similar Charles H2 filled balloon methods to reduce aerodynamic drag (thus making it easier to ply the sky), Santos Dumont’s achievement was significant. Note: Meusnier’s method used internal controlled air inflated or vented flexible ballonets maintaining & holding aerostat form as the H2 contracted or expanded, which Dumont adopted. With these and his own ways, Dumont therefore enabled airships for transportation and other useful purposes, which followed. The heyday for them thus was kicked-off and the gold-rush began!
Nobody looked back or asked themselves, “Is it the right way for airships to follow?”
Count Zeppelin already was ahead of the game, planning rigid-structure aerial-leviathans to help get around the world. What happened? Well, by 1940 it was game-over for Zeppelins and the like, leaving just smaller types based on non-rigid aerostat (elongated balloon) principles.
The reasons for giant rigid airships being abandoned included:
- Vulnerability as war aircraft – big targets that were slow and ponderous.
- Inability to compete with aeroplanes – fast and agile.
- Slow and costly to produce – the British were building them for WW1 use but didn’t manage to get them into service until it was over.
- Difficult to manage at ground level – needing many crew, special arrangements and rather large hangars, all costing dearly!
- Fragility – easy to break (many incidents) but not easy to repair.
- When their gas-cells were filled with H2, a recipe for disaster – “Oh, the humanity!”
On the other hand, more forgiving smaller non-rigid types with mainly H2 filling their aerostats (flexible envelopes stiffened by internal pressure using Meusnier’s method) were found to be effective and reliable in both world wars shepherding ship convoys against submarine attacks. They also found uses for commercial purposes (like Goodyear’s promotional airships’ fleet).
However, it largely was game-over for them as well by 1960, mainly due to powerful USA groups who wanted aeroplanes instead; claiming that they could fulfil all of the duties needed. The know-how from experience thus was lost as people who previously worked in the industry died.
The Return of Airships
When airships reappeared in the 1970/80s it then was with people who had interest and perhaps knowledge from history books but, except for balloon flight, little airship knowhow. The rebirth also was in an age with new materials and systems (helping) but then with established aircraft regulators without airship experience to contend with (impeding progress).
What followed was a short lived revival until the end of the century for mainly conventional non-rigid airships but without overcoming the issues causing phase out before. Engineers from the 20th century gained insight about the issues to solve and the possibilities for niche-markets to serve, where airships are the only viable option. However, around the turn of the century, new players attempted too much too quickly, wasting money invested (causing distrust). Small multi-rotor drones then became popular, taking the limelight and many airship market sectors.
Evident from the near zero number of manned airships in service today, the industry is trying to recover but needs better ways to follow, where more of the same is unlikely to succeed. LSL, founded 2010 but now reformed with experienced airship team players from the early 1980s onward, is working to introduce new ways that break the cycle and overcome shortcomings!
LSL considers that airships with their natural long endurance/range capability offering “a direct, swift and easy floatage from any one point to every other on the face of the globe” (Sir George Cayley, when writing about Aerial Navigation before airships had flown) are needed from being the only viable way for some purposes, which we plan to develop, such as:
- Aerial-cranes for loads more than helicopters manage
- Heavy-lift transporters for poorly served regions
- Aerial-platforms able to remain aloft over exceptionally long periods
- Aerial-cruisers for people to enjoy affordable environmentally friendly air travel
- Rovers (manned &/or unmanned) for patrol anywhere
From working to develop modern airships through the 1980s it was found that they inherited the foibles of former types stemming from the elongated aerostat form originally adopted, causing them to be unidirectional (UD). This form must always face the airflow direction to minimise broadside load effects, which is far from convenient when needing to hold heading or for ground operations. Most airship incidents occur at their ground bases due to bad behaviour of this form in turbulent weather!
Lessons from Airships built since 1970
Following several years building and operating airships Roger Munk, the first person after 1970 to develop them commercially, found there was need for more reliable ways to hold them still when moored (to ease maintenance) and to manage them with ground equipment due to inherited poor behaviour from winds. He also faced criticism concerning their need for load-exchange (difficult during poor weather) to counteract buoyancy as payloads or heavy items are picked-up/put-down.
He thus recognised need for change. From seeing models flying with wide-bodied aerostats able to develop more aerodynamic lift than conventional circular section forms together with hovercraft skirts able to also work in reverse (like limpets), thought he had solutions – so then introduced what were called hybrid airships (see definitions).
Unfortunately, what’s evident from the various versions promoted since he died is that:
- They increase complexity – more things to solve (manufacture, stability, control, further ground-handling issues…) costing more.
- The technology is immature – likely to take a long time to debug and determine limitations needed.
- They’re being marketed for unsuitable purposes – not ideal for aerial-crane duties, as they must face the wind, still suffer from broadside load effects difficult to manage, and need aerodynamic lift to remain airborne (not effective without airspeed – when hovering).
- Information about them is misleading – although with short take-off and landing ability, when operating heavy and due to size, they will need a good clear flat area to do so safely.
- They need development of specialised infrastructure and mechanical handling methods.
- They have high power needs – not easy for environmentalists to accept.
Perhaps the issues will be solved one day. However, judging from their starting position (as more complex variants of traditional airships) short-term success is unlikely!
To mitigate the inherited shortcomings and poor ability for some duties of UD types, LSL went back to basics for an alternative way to make buoyant aircraft (balloons/aerostats) dirigible without losing or compromising their inherent omni-directional (O-D) capability so much. We found that, instead of elongating their aerostat, by squashing it an alternative discus (lenticular) form with reduced drag and better ability results – providing benefits including:
- Better efficiency as a gas container/displacement body – enabling lower overall size
- Greater ability to naturally develop aerodynamic lift (the reason for so called hybrids)
- Uniformity of form (cake slices) reducing parts count and the number of different parts, reducing the burden of design/analysis and manufacture – so costing less
- Better ability to spread applied loads evenly – reducing structural issues
- Can be simply fixed when moored and hold any heading desired during flight
- Scales easily and can be used for additional purposes, such as floating roofs
- Easy to arrange as both a free balloon and airship, switching routinely between these modes during flight to suit circumstances, enabling balloon pilots to easily become airship pilots
- Enables balloons, tethered aerostats and airships to use near identical displacement bodies, low-level ground arrangements and operating procedures
- Reduces time and costs for development, production, certification, acquisition and operation, making them affordable for duties envisaged
In the parallel aeroplane industry there came a time when some people started looking for alternative aircraft that could ascend/descend vertically with a payload, hold station and heading at any height above a ground point plus rotate or move sideways with ease. This resulted in the introduction of rotorcraft (helicopters), which today are successful aircraft fulfilling many duties that aeroplanes don’t suit. They’re successful because of their O-D ability, which buoyant aircraft also can be!
LSL is confident that O-D buoyant aircraft with a lenticular aerostat will be successful for services to port much bigger/heavier payloads with significantly longer endurance & range than helicopters. They are a game changing way for the buoyant aircraft industry overall, where the aerostat form enables compatibility at each level that may be standardised for use as:
- Floating roofs held at low level providing shelter, overhead projection screens and support for equipment/systems
- Tethered aerostats that don’t need a turntable or mast, can be fixed against the ground and can ascend to function at heights that UD or bulbous types serve but respectively cost more or have lower ability
- Dirigibles that use the facilities developed for tethered aerostats, launching vertically
For dirigible types it involves parallel development of Propellers able to provide rapid-response vectored thrust in any 360 degree radial direction and perhaps fans facilitating heavy-lift. While the technology already exists, propellers with rapid-response vectored thrust ability aren’t generally available yet. Nonetheless, LSL considers they are the right way for airships (of all types) and an easier way (less costly) to adopt than vectoring screw propellers. They actually aren’t an industry standard, as many people mistakenly believe (none available as certified systems off-the-shelf), needing special development for each aircraft – then performing inadequately, unable for rapid response needs!
Also needed are automated systems for six-degree-of-freedom (6DOF) control. Multi-rotor drones achieve this today in clearly reliable ways. LSL thinks the technology isn’t difficult to adapt for airship purposes – enabling autonomous operation.
LSL is working with numerous specialists, industrialists, suppliers and collaborators to furnish the buoyant aircraft and associated fabric-structure products/services possible. We also are interested to extend collaboration under agreeable terms to develop LSL proposals worldwide.
It’s transformative technology (rather than disruptive) solving the poor behaviour and high costs of traditional airships that, when the buoyant aircraft industry is better established, make sense for purposes they suit.
LSL is confident its proposals are viable and will enable the buoyant aircraft industry generally.
If you share our thoughts and want the benefits that result, why not register interest and talk with us to learn more?