Aeros's ML866 airship concept looks promising technically but faces funding challenges
Few doubt the merits airships could have in cargo transport, but as the latest developments around Aeros Corp.'s ML866 show, even what looks like a technologically compelling idea has high hurdles to jump between technical maturity and market success.
Aeros faces two primary issues: The collapse of a hangar roof badly damaged its “Dragon Dream” prototype, and the consequences of that mishap are still unclear. And then there is the problem that looms for every prospective airship manufacturer: access to funding. Although the company says there is a lot of interest in its product, it estimates the total investment needed between now and full-swing production at $2 billion.
Aeros CEO Igor Pasternak says the concept will revolutionize airfreight and tourism. He wants to build a 555-ft.-long (169-meter) airship, the ML866, capable of carrying a 66-ton payload at a top speed of 120 kt. over a range of 3,100 nm at an altitude of 12,000 ft. The larger ML868 variant would fly at the same speed and altitude but be 770 ft. long (three times longer than a) and carry 250 tons (roughly twice the payload of a 747F). At $40 million, versus $350 million for a 747, and with an engine that uses commercial-grade diesel rather than jet-grade fuel, the savings would be considerable. The prototype 266-ft-long Dragon Dream has flown (while tethered), and Aeros wants to present it at the Paris air show in 2017.
That is the plan. But Aeros still cannot access its equipment because the U.S. Air Force, which owns the partially collapsed hangar, has not yet granted it clearance. An Aeros official says the company expects to be allowed back in by the end of February. Pasternak says the prototype's fate is insignificant. “There are no more technical challenges to overcome,” he says. “We have solved those. Now it is only management and finance.”
Many companies have spent millions trying to develop commercial airships but none have seen the light of day. Pasternak says Aeros's concept is different because it uses the same technology that provides submarines with buoyancy. Submarines draw in water as ballast to sink and pump it out to rise; the airship uses air instead of water.
With a rigid internal structure made from aluminium and carbon composites, the airship fills and empties internal expansion bladders with helium that is compressed inside large tanks. A partial vacuum surrounds the bladders, which then fill with air from outside the ship, lowering the buoyancy and causing the ship to descend. Releasing the helium back into the airship's main envelope causes the bladders to deflate, lowering the internal pressure of the airship and pushing the air back outside the ship, causing it to rise.
By using air as ballast and keeping the helium in a closed system, the airship requires no additional ballast after cargo has been unloaded, as is the case with traditional airship designs. It also allows it to take off and land vertically—a first for lighter-than-air vehicles.
But funding the project could well be a stumbling block. Pasternak will not say exactly how much money the company has sourced, but he says some has started to appear. “We are not waiting for something to happen financially; it is already happening. At this point we're comfortable, but it's an ongoing process,” he says. Pasternak also will not reveal the names of investors, saying only that they are both “strategic partners and classical financial investors.”
The next step, he says, is to build the fleet, and for that he needs more money. “We are estimating $2 billion. That is not only to build the fleet of 22, but also to set up the whole operation.”
Pasternak envisions production of fully operational commercial airships by 2016, with a fleet of 22 by 2020 leased on an aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance (ACMI) basis. That means that, as developer and operator, Aeros must pre-finance everything—and soon, if the schedule is to be kept.
There is market interest. Air charter service Pacific Airlift signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Aeros because it sees potential in an airship that can deliver cargo to remote communities on islands that lack sufficient space for full airstrips. It is also considering using it for cruises between islands. Other companies are apparently interested in using it as a ship that can cruise land as easily as ocean.
Icelandair Cargo has signed an MOU with the company as well. “Our first impression is that the concept is very interesting and is definitely something to look at,” says Icelandair Cargo Managing Director Gunnar Mar Sigurfinnsson. “If everything goes as planned, then this could solve the logistics problems in remote areas, such as Greenland.”
The MOUs do not involve financial investment and do not commit the signing parties to anything. They are important for Aeros to market its ideas to potential investors, however. Pasternak calls them “a road map of cooperation.”
In the meantime, Aeros is under contract with the U.S. government for various conventional blimp contracts, which is keeping the company afloat. “At this point, the government is looking at ways not to help develop military vehicles but to support commercial vehicles that can also be used by the military,” Pasternak says.
Despite its design innovations, the Dragon Dream concept's speed is a weakness. At only 115 mph, it will be slower than a widebody freighter. That does not have to be a deal-breaker, as sometimes just being faster than ocean freighters in transporting perishable items is enough.
But weather can be an issue, too. While its large size will offset some turbulence, the airship will not be able to avoid particularly bad weather as airplanes can. That could be a problem in the Arctic, where bad weather can last longer than in more temperate regions, a possibility of which Sigurfinnsson is well aware. “For the moment, we are only investigating to see whether it will be suitable equipment to serve the area,” he says. “We don't know whether the weather conditions will put any limitations on its operations in the north.”
Aeros emphasizes that the issues Sigurfinnsson sees are manageable. The Icelandair Cargo executive sees the project as “definitely an interesting option.” He notes that “for the time being though, we are just crunching numbers, evaluating options and seeing what is possible. It is not even in production yet, so there are still a lot of questions we need to have answered first.” Potential investors are likely thinking the same.