The New Airship Era: flying six months at a time, powered by the sun


The planet has a growing problem with conventional airflight, according to this Conversation UK piece from earlier this year. It reeled off some alarming stats: 

The first is that aviation is essentially a fossil fuel industry, one which guzzles an eye-watering 5m barrels of oil every day. Burning that fuel currently contributes around 2.5% to total carbon emissions, a proportion which could rise to 22% by 2050 as other sectors emit less.

The second problem is, as Air Asia puts it, “Now everyone can fly”. And in “generation easyJet”, those who already fly, fly more than ever. This increasing demand from new and existing travellers means the number of passenger aircraft in our skies is set to double by 2035.

The third problem is that unlike other sectors where there might be a greener alternative (solar not coal, LEDs not lightbulbs etc), there is currently no way to fly 8m people every day without burning lots of dirty kerosene. Aircraft are becoming more fuel-efficient, but not quickly enough to offset the huge demand in growth. Electric planes remain decades away, weighed down by batteries that can’t deliver nearly as much power per kilo as jet fuel.

We should be clear-eyed about this - both open to an unforseen technical fix, but also aware of the perilous endpoint of these numbers. Also, does a new consciousness of ourselves as global citizens really depend on effortless airflight? How might AR, VR, and MR bring us at least the impression of parts of the world, way beyond our Western experience, without taking to the skies. 

In the meantime... airships. To be specific, beautiful great entities like The Yuanmeng, pictured above. As Science Alert reports

The Yuanmeng uses helium gas to rise and relies largely on solar power to keep its electronics running while in the air. The airship is said to be able to fly for up to six months at a stretch, with a large array of solar panels covering the mid-portion of the aircraft’s top side.

It’s not exactly clear what the vessel’s intended use is, but a report in the People’s Daily suggests that it might be used for communications purposes, as the ship is said to be loaded with systems for wideband communication, data relay, high-definition observation, and spatial imaging. By contrast, the ML866, which can carry a payload approaching 60 metric tonnes, is intended primarily for cargo transport.

This is all well and good, but now that safe, solar-powered helium-based dirigibles are making a high-tech comeback, where are the luxury passenger models? A leisurely six-month cruise – or float, rather – through the skies sounds like a pretty fantastic holiday right about now!

It's not so much the luxury passenger experience that attracts us, as much as the stunning renewability of its propulsion. Speed is certainly an issue, scraping just over 100mph at its maximum - five times slower than standard passenger aircraft (at around 550mph), but over twice as fast as a sea-going cruise ship (34.5mph). So like a high-speed linear automobile dash across a continent. 

But can you begin to imagine a quite different positive experience of airflight? Perhaps a commitment to the experience itself, a way of contemplating both space and earth from a steady, stunning vantage point above the clouds? It's far from the Easy-anything experience - which might itself have to be curtailed as we crash through our planetary limits. But it could turn out to be the most beautiful, meaningful - and sustainable - way to fly.