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Earth Talk: Is blimp travel making a comeback?
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Earth Talk: Is blimp travel making a comeback?

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Are electric-powered, energy-efficient blimps making a comeback as a short hop and regional commuter travel option?

Are electric-powered, energy-efficient blimps making a comeback as a short hop and regional commuter travel option? (Dreamstime/TNS)

Dear EarthTalk: Is blimp travel really making a comeback? Is it eco-friendly? — J. Roe, Islip. New York

The blimp, forever besmirched due to the Hindenburg explosion in 1937 — when one of the first commercial blimps caught on fire — never really fulfilled its potential as a commuting vehicle.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and companies like Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) are taking steps to reintroduce airships safely. HAV’s Airlander 10, for example, uses inert helium for buoyancy instead of flammable hydrogen (which the industry began doing right after the Hindenburg disaster), thus eliminating the threat of disasters like the Hindenburg. Today’s blimp can be an efficient cargo carrier, and can also seat 100 passengers and travel 200-300 miles quickly on hybrid (diesel/electric) power — making blimp travel one of the greenest ways to travel medium-length distances.

Traditional commercial jets are not only much more costly to make, but also accelerate global warming and impact local air quality. Commercial aircrafts use large amounts of fossil fuels and emit harmful greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulfate or soot particulates.

As a hybrid vehicle with a helium-filled balloon for buoyancy — the Airlander 10 drastically reduces the amount of fuel necessary to keep it airborne. HAV reports that the Airlander will emit 90% less carbon dioxide per passenger than a commercial jet. However, the company plans to replace all hybrid versions with 500 kW electric motors — two forward motors by 2025 and two rear motors by 2030 — to make the aircraft fully electric and producing zero emissions.

HAV adds that while blimps created in the past could not withstand rough weather conditions, the Airlander “will be able to withstand lightning and icing and operate in most weathers.” With the ability to cover 4,000 miles, reach the altitude of 20,000 feet, and travel approximately 80 miles per hour, the Airlander maximizes energy efficiency and is designed to remain airborne for up to five days at a stretch.

“This isn’t a luxury product, it’s a practical solution to challenges posed by the climate crisis,” HAV Chief Executive Tom Grundy tells The Guardian.

In addition to commercial passenger and cargo transportation, the Airlander may just be the newest eco-tourism vehicle. With large windows that provide a clear view of the landscapes below and little predicted turbulence due to reduced engine usage, the Airlander is perfect for luxury eco-travel. In fact, Swedish travel firm OceanSky has already purchased an Airlander that will include a customized luxury cabin, where passengers can enjoy stunning, unparalleled views while flying over places like the North Pole.

Although an Airlander prototype crashed during a 2019 test flight, another test flight performed in 2021 proved successful. As with all commercial aircraft, the Airlander requires certification from regulators before operation. Though the Airlander does not yet have approval, HAV looks forward to building 12 Airlanders yearly with hopes of producing upwards of 250 over the next few decades.

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