US-based Aeroscraft Corporation (Aeros) has been developing a variable-buoyancy airship for some time, and has made no secret of the fact that it sees a big future for such a craft in the cargo business. Aeros is hardly the first company to push the idea of a vertical takeoff and landing airship as a compliment to freighter aircraft, but while other plans and projects have not made it very far off the drawing board, Aeros appears to have solved the nagging problem of ballasting for loading and unloading operations, and looks to have a real chance of success in the commercial world. More about the ballast issue below, but consider that two serious players in the air freight arena – Cargolux and Icelandair Cargo – have each signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Aeros to create strategic partnerships.
In late November, Icelandair Cargo and Aeros signed an MoU with the intent of establishing “a strategic partnership” that provides air freight service and intermodal container transportation solutions to Arctic Circle destinations. Iceland would be used as a hub for distribution to areas lacking infrastructure such as Greenland, Siberia, Alaska and Northern Canada. The new air cargo service would support commercial development of natural resources discoveries in these regions, using the variable-buoyancy Aeroscraft. The company plans to have the first of its initial fleet of 22 vehicles ready for operation in 2016. The Aeroscraft will be available in two different sizes: the 60-tonne (66 ton) capacity ML866 with a range of up to 3,100 nautical miles, and the 225 tonne (250 ton) ML868 with a range up to 6,000 nautical miles. “The Aeroscrafts will revolutionize arctic transportation forever,” predicted Gunnar Sigurfinnsson, Managing Director of Icelandair Cargo.
And this week Cargolux – a much bigger cargo player than Icelandair – signed a similar MoU with Aeros, under which the two companies will “explore a strategic partnership that provides new vertical airfreight logistical services and intermodal standard container transportation solutions.” The deal, if it proceeds past the MoU stage, would see Cargolux become a launch partner for the two Aeroscraft models, while Aeros would gain access to Cargolux’s network in Europe and North Africa. For more on the Cargolux/Aeros agreement, as well as updated information on the sale of a 35% stake in the carrier to HNCA, click here to read an analysis by Cargo Facts’ European editor Alex Lennane.
Both of these agreements would have a primary focus on project cargo, particularly in the transport of outsize and heavy loads to destinations without the infrastructure needed to allow access with freighter aircraft like the An-124, 747, and Il-76. Of course, signing an MoU is no guarantee that we will ever see airships dropping off 100-tonne generators or oil rigs in the icefields of Greenland or the jungles of Borneo, but to have carriers like Icelandair and Cargolux show genuine interest is evidence this is far more than a pipe dream.
And about the ballasting issue: One big problem with lighter-than-air vehicles is that they are, well, lighter than air. If an airship has sufficient buoyancy to lift hundred-tonne loads, how do you deal with that buoyancy when the load is removed? The airship might not need a 4,000 meter paved landing strip, but then again an An-124 doesn’t have to be tethered to the ground with a system capable of resisting a 100-tonne upward pull. Aeros has dealt with this through the development of what it calls the Control of Static Heaviness (COSH) system, which “compresses non-flammable helium into onboard helium pressure envelopes to allow the vehicle to manage buoyant lift similarly to submarine’s ballast management under water.” More technical detail on the COSH system as well as the Aeroscraft’s vectored thrust system is available on the company’s website, here.