Are Airships the Answer to Overloaded Air Travel?

While most people are maybe not looking back 85 years to the first days of Zeppelins, Dirigibles and Airships with much fondness, researchers from the University of Lincoln have just finished a three year study that may show lighter-than-air craft as the future of sustainable air transport.

Lincoln University’s School of Engineering was part of a European research project investigating airships as the green answer to future air travel. They came up with the concept of a Multibody Advanced Airship for Transport, or MAAT, that could become a clean, safe, efficient and cheap alternative to planes as air-bound transport, particularly at the mid-range level where speed could be justifiably traded for much better fuel consumption.

MAAT, being worked on by academics from eight nations and led by the University of Modena, is the proposal of huge cruiser type airships, carrying people and cargo around the planet on set routes and never landing. Instead, vertical take-of and landing capable ‘feeder’ ships would be utilised at set points, ferrying goods and passengers on and off the larger cruiser as it floats by.

The MAAT airships’  electrical systems, life support, propulsion and controls would be fuelled by sunlight harvested through photovoltaic arrays on the ships’ upper surface during the day, while storing the excess for use at night. One of the main design concerns is finding a new and innovative propulsion system that doesn’t suffer from the limitations of propellers at high altitude, as the MAAT is expected to remain up at an altitude of around 15km.

Projections for the aviation industry expects the number of aircraft passengers to surpass 400 million by the year 2020, with a 340% increase in air freight forecast over the next twenty years. Over that time, growing congestion at many of the UK’s airports is likely to push out cargo operation thanks to economic pressure. This new demand for airfreight means that there will have to be a large investment in extra airport infrastructure, or a new form of transport will have to be found.

And here is where the proposed adoption of MAAT crosiers and airships really starts to make more sense. According to the project leaders, the minimal need for fuel would reduce costs substantially, the VTOL feeder ships would free-up enormous amounts of runway space and reduce delivery times, while the virtually silent workings that airships are blessed with would allow 24 hour operations, even in busy metropolitan areas.

It is still just a concept though, and Tim Smith, Senior Research Fellow at Lincoln School of Engineering, is careful to point out that MAAT, or any other airship design, is not intended to replace conventional aircraft. It is being suggested that they work alongside the existing aviation industry, providing an alternative for the increasing shipping loads that won’t involve the construction of new roads, ports or railways, in our ever-shrinking world.

Learn more about the MAAT project here:

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