Move over Antonov

26 / 07 / 2013

  • Inventor Igor Pasternak (top, right)

    Inventor Igor Pasternak (top, right)

PICTURE a scene in which airships drift serenely across the skies, delivering cargo direct to factories, construction sites, even urban locations, and you might think that you are in a 1920s science fiction movie. Yet if Igor Pasternak inventor of Aeroscraft has his way, this is the new frontier in air logistics.

He envisages thousands of the craft ultimately taking to the skies, carrying loads of up to 250 tonnes. “We are creating a new industry, not just a new airplane,” he says. “This is a whole new kind of logistics. It is like the internet. It was not created to take market share from the fax machine: it was an entirely different business model.”

You might be inclined to smile politely at this and pass on. After all, haven’t people been predicting a renaissance for airships ever since the Hindenburg caught fire and crashed while docking at Lakehurst, New Jersey in May 1937? 

And you don’t have to be too long in the tooth to remember Cargo-Lifter which, in the late 1990s, was making bold claims for the transport of cargo by its CL160 airship. The most enduring legacy of that company turned out to be its hangar in Germany  which, after it went bust, was converted into a tropical paradise resort.

But Pasternak’s airship is rather different. It has a rigid shell and it uses innovative technology to enable it to rise and descend. “One of the problems with conventional air-ships is the need for ballast,” he says. “If you deliver 100,000lbs of cargo, then the ship is suddenly unstable. People have proposed water as ballast in the past, but it is impractical.”

Aeroscraft, by contrast, is using the air itself as ballast. It has developed technology to enable it to compress and store helium. This creates more room for air within the rigid envelope of the airship and thus makes it heavier. “It is like a submarine in reverse,” Pasternak says. “The air acts as the ballast, just as in a submarine the water acts as the ballast.”

Add in a hybrid propulsion system – a diesel generator powering an electric motor – and Pasternak reckons the craft will be highly manoeuverable. It will need no infrastructure on the ground because it will be able to hover just a few feet off the ground to deliver its cargo. “The 66-tonne vehicle is 500 feet long, so with vertical take-off and landing it needs only a 500-ft footprint,” he says.

Since the airship – Pasternak actually prefers the term ‘hybrid air-ship’ – operates on diesel fuel rather than expensive jet fuel, it can also fly anywhere, free from the need to refuel at airports. It is this freedom to operate anywhere that Aeroscraft reckons will be the real revolution of its airship. 

“Until now, transport has been built on hub and spoke,” says Pasternak. “Now it will be independent of port, railway, airport. You can introduce flexibility and be very efficient for the client. You can deliver the cargo directly from origin to destination, without having to take it to an airport for loading.”

He is convinced that this door-to-door service will more than compensate for the slower airspeed of the airship – 100 knots, compared to 500 or so for a commercial airliner. “Our solution will be faster, because you unload and load directly at the site. And because it uses one third of the fuel of an air-plane it will be much more economical.”

Aeroscraft plans to have two different sizes of airship, and initially intends to operate a fleet of 24. It has already designed the first, a 66-tonne craft with a 3,000 nautical mile range, and is in the process of building it. Pasternak says it should be ready to fly in two to three years. A 250-tonne model,  with 6,000 nautical mile range will follow, probably a year later.

The cargo bay will be huge – 210 feet long, 60 feet wide and 30 feet high on the 66-tonne aircraft. Loading will be made simple by the fact that the cargo will be secured to the top of the loading bay (by a process that was not obvious to this author, but Pasternak insists it will work for any type of cargo), while the floor of the bay is also its cargo door. 

Thus to unload the airship it will simply be manoeuvred into posit-ion a few feet over the destination, the doors opened and the cargo lowered using the air-ship’s own internal winch. Contrast that, says Pasternak, with the AN-124 “which can take five days to load”.

The airship will also be able to load one piece of cargo in one place and another in another, so acting on a bus-stop principle. “We can go on a flexible route like a UPS truck, delivering some containers here, some there,” says Pasternak.

It is this aspect of his vision that is perhaps most surprising; that he sees it being used not just for outsize and project cargo – the market Cargo-Lifter had in mind – but for general cargo shipments too. The 250-tonne model of the airship will even be able to move standard ISO seafreight containers, and Pasternak imagines them being used for onward distribution from port direct to customer.

Before all this can be realised, however, there are a few practical hurdles to overcome. Pasternak generously says that had Cargo-Lifter not run out of money, they might well have come up with a technical solution similar to his own. Does that mean he has his own finance securely in place? His answer is simply: “We are executing our financial plan.”

He is equally confident about achieving certification for his craft, though one can envisage that the FAA and the like might have concerns about an airship carrying 250 tonnes of cargo through built-up areas.

Pasternak says that certification is happening in parallel with the design and build of the prototype, but that mostly the airship will be governed by the existing rules for dirigibles, helicopters and light aircraft. Cruise will be at 12,000 feet. “There is no more general aviation up there and commercial aviation is much higher. So you are above the weather, but no one else is there.”

One might wonder what flying the craft will be like for the crew too, with journey times inevitably a good deal longer than for commercial aircraft. Pasternak con-cedes that the crew will be in the air for a long time, but says that noise levels will be minimal and crew quarters generous in size. “The pilots will be able to take their statutory breaks in flight,” he says.

This prompts another prospect,  that if the Aeroscraft concept works it might be appealing to a certain type of passenger business – a sort of aerial cruise. Pasternak admits he has had some approaches from potential customers in this area, but is clearly much more excited about the potential for shipping cargo.

“We saw cargo as the bigger market,” he insists. “This will change logistics principles and be a new paradigm.

“Until now we have been doing logistics in the same way we have done it for 300 years, but now it is a whole new world.”