Up in the Sky — Could it be Your Next Delivery?

Stephen DeAngelis

September 10, 2014

The age of airships came to a sudden and sad ending when the Hindenburg exploded and crashed as it was attempting to land at Lakehurst, NJ, 6 May 1937. Airships made a small comeback when Goodyear started broadcasting sporting and entertainment events from its famous blimps. Those blimps have now been joined by a plethora of competitors. None of those airships, however, are used to move passengers or goods. That may be changing. Matt McFarland (@mattmcfarland) reports that a company named Hybrid Air Vehicles is building “a massive airship with an uncertain but intriguing future” called the Airlander. [“The quest to find a place for airships in our modern world,” The Washington Post, 6 March 2014] A spokesperson for Hybrid Air Vehicles, Chris Daniels, told McFarland, “The limit is only people’s imagination. We’re finding people are coming to us with more and more ideas.” Daniels foresees airships being used for “humanitarian missions, academic research, and tourism in remote locations such as the Amazon rain forest.” McFarland notes that Barry Prentice, a professor at the University of Manitoba published a study in which he declared, “A decade ago, the only commercial market for airships was advertising and carrying TV cameras at a football game. All these airships were inflatables, or ‘blimps.’ There is now a worldwide competition to develop cargo airships. The most important remaining barrier to a cargo airship industry is the lack of business confidence.” Josh Bearman reports, “Northrop Grumman, Lockheed and other major aviation companies, alongside such smaller entrepreneurs as Cargolifter and Aeros have all, at various times, participated in the race to build a commercially viable airship.” [“A Plan For Airships That Might Finally Take Off,” Popular Science, 2 July 2013]

 

Among the companies competing to build the first viable cargo airship, Aeros is probably the firm that is furthest along. The company’s “Aeroscraft is a fixed-wing, rigid-structure vehicle that’s designed to carry up to 250 tons of cargo.” [“Up in the Sky – It’s a Cargo Airship!” by Robert J. Bowman, SupplyChainBrain, 22 August 2014] The prototype for the Aeroscraft, the Dragon Dreams, took its maiden flight late last year. You can watch it lift off in this short video clip.

 

 

Andrew Tarantola (@Terrortola) reports, “The Aeroscraft has been under development by Aeros Corp, the world’s largest airship and blimp maker, since 1996. The project has received over $35 million in R&D funds and the government has even lent the company a couple of NASA boffins to help develop the aerodynamics and control systems. … The future of lighter-than-air travel looks to be imminently upon us.” [“The Aluminum Airship of the Future Has Finally Flown,” Gizmodo, 13 September 2013] He continues:

“Unlike blimps that maintain a constant buoyancy and rely on ballast and fans to adjust their altitude, the Aeroscraft will employ a unique bladder system that can alter the craft’s static heaviness (relative to air) at will, dubbed COSH (Control of Static Heaviness). The system actually works quite similarly to how submarines use compressed air to float. The Aeroscraft is equipped with a series of pressurized helium tanks. When the pilot wants to increase altitude, non-flammable helium is released from the tanks through a series of pipes and control valves, into internal gas-bladders called helium pressure envelopes (HPEs). This increases the amount of lift the helium generates, reduces the craft’s static heaviness, and allows it to rise. When the pilot wants to descend, the process is reversed. This allows the Aeroscraft to easily land and take on cargo or passengers without having to be tied down or add external ballast. Additionally, the Aeroscraft will be equipped with a trio of engines — one on each side and a third on the belly — and six turbofan engines to provide thrust and augment the COSH’s lift, as well as aerodynamic tail-fin rudders and stumpy wing control surfaces, for high speed travel — that is, above 20 mph. Oh it’ll get you there, it’s just going to take a while.”

The greatest benefit provided by airships like the Aeroscraft is that they don’t require a runway in order to pick up and deliver cargo. That opens up enormous opportunities for air delivery of cargo to and from remote locations. Anyone who has ever watched History Channel’s “Ice Road Truckers” knows that many remote Alaskan locations are only accessible during winter when lakes freeze over creating so-called ice roads. Airships could operate year round. Jenny Soffel (@jennysoffel) reports, “Commercial development of the Arctic’s natural resources has so far been near to impossible, but transportation throughout the inhospitable region may soon be revolutionized. U.S.-based airship company Aeros and Icelandic airline Icelandair Cargo, say they have signed an agreement with hopes of establishing a partnership to develop new air freight service across the Arctic region. Together they are hoping to deliver standard cargo containers via Iceland to regions with little infrastructure, such as Siberia, Alaska, Greenland and northern Canada.” [“Can airships revolutionize transportation in world’s harshest environments?” CNN, 10 December 2013] For some customers, cargo airships may be the answer to the “last mile” challenge faced by all supply chains. Obviously, it won’t solve everyone’s last mile challenge. Another airborne option, drones, could help. Gordon Benzie (@gbenzie) writes, “You likely saw the announcement last December about Amazon wanting to deploy drones to deliver packages. While this would likely be a premium delivery option, dubbed ‘Prime Air,’ this service would get customers their products in just 30 minutes after clicking the ‘buy’ button. Here is a whole new spin to leveraging a ‘cloud-based’ technology from a mobile app! According to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, his ‘optimistic’ estimate is that Prime Air will be available to customers within 4 to 5 years.” [“Will Drones be in your Future Value Chain?Manufacturing Transformation, 20 August 2014] He continues, “For those of you who haven’t yet seen this video, it is worth spending a minute to watch. It shows how drones could be used to deliver packages from an Amazon warehouse to the end user:”

 

 

Benzie reports that at least one other company, Lakemaid Beer, was inspired by Amazon’s drone plans. “The FAA recently halted a Minnesota brewery from testing a drone to deliver beer to ice fisherman,” he writes. “Inspired by Amazon’s drone project, Lakemaid Beer posted an online video showing a 12-pack of beer taking flight under a six-propeller drone. Lakemaid’s President, Jack Supple, said he doesn’t plan to give up hope on his brewery’s idea, and plans to be ready when the FAA gives the approval.

 

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are also interested in advancing the use of drones from solving the last mile challenge. Jennifer Chu reports, “To ensure safe, timely and accurate delivery, drones would need to deal with a degree of uncertainty in responding to factors such as high winds, sensor measurement errors, or drops in fuel. But such ‘what-if’ planning typically requires massive computation, which can be difficult to perform on the fly. Now Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have come up with a two-pronged approach that significantly reduces the computation associated with lengthy delivery missions.” [“Delivery by drone,” R&D, 21 August 2014] She explains:

“The team first developed an algorithm that enables a drone to monitor aspects of its ‘health’ in real time. With the algorithm, a drone can predict its fuel level and the condition of its propellers, cameras, and other sensors throughout a mission, and take proactive measures — for example, rerouting to a charging station — if needed. The researchers also devised a method for a drone to efficiently compute its possible future locations offline, before it takes off. The method simplifies all potential routes a drone may take to reach a destination without colliding with obstacles. In simulations involving multiple deliveries under various environmental conditions, the researchers found that their drones delivered as many packages as those that lacked health-monitoring algorithms — but with far fewer failures or breakdowns.”

It’s still too early to predict whether last mile logistics from the air is going to be a success; nevertheless, there are a lot of very smart people working to make air delivery a reality. That may not be Superman up in the air — or a bird or a plane — delivering your package; but, it could be a drone or an airship.