The Gulf region may be about to become the epicentre of a new aviation revolution. As hybrid airship technology continues to mature, plans are advancing to bring this new breed of aircraft to the Middle East, both for commercial applications and in military or security-oriented roles. ShowNews speaks to two companies active in the sector.

Airships Arabia

"I'm excited at the prospect of helping everybody realise what they've been missing by not using airships very much for the last hundred years," says Gregory Gottlieb. "Don't forget, the first airship flew in 1784, before the Wright Brothers were even a twinkle in their parents' eyes. So this technology has never really been fully exploited. Together with the manufacturers, and the other operators around the world, we're hoping to change that."

A former British Army officer, Gottlieb became involved in the lighter-than-air sector in the 1990s, during a Masters' degree course at the Royal College of Science at Shrivenham. He ran a number of airship progams - some still classified - for the UK's defense ministry, including the operational deployment of a Skyship 600 in 1997 and an aerial surveillance operation, using an airship and staffed by British soldiers, during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. He left the military in 1998 and, after a succession of jobs in the renascent lighter-than-air industry, set up Airships Arabia in the UAE last year.

"The catalyst for the decision to create Airships Arabia was the progress being made by Hybrid Air Vehicles [see opposite page] and by Lockheed Martin to develop hybrid airships," Gottlieb says. "This technology has potentially changed the game in a significant way, because any conventional airship will be cumbersome when it gets close to the ground. That degree of ground-operation difficulty can be reduced, but not eliminated - whereas with a heavier-than-air aircraft that uses a significant proportion of helium lift to contribute to its performance, those ground-handling and ground-management problems largely go away. It's that change in the technical environment that, in my view, makes the use of hybrid aircraft viable commercially."

Logistics applications will emerge as the aircraft increase in size and payload capacity, and will offer customers "moderately impressive tonnages, burning an order of magnitude less fuel than current fixed-wing aircraft, and at an hourly operating cost which we anticipate being a fraction of either a helicopter or a fixed-wing aeroplane of a comparable capability - not that any have a comparable capability," Gottlieb says. But it is in passenger operations he believes hybrid airships will prove their worth first.

"Because a hybrid airship has the ability to land on any reasonably flat surface, we'll be able to carry up to 50 or so passengers from the middle of a city to the middle of another city, in a reasonably straight line, in comfort, being able to read the paper and have breakfast, or just stare out of the huge windows and enjoy the view while the traffic jams below are back-to-back," he says. "For a bit more than the cost of a taxi journey on the same route we can profitably carry commuters between Dubai and Abu Dhabi in about 45 or 50 minutes. We're also looking at other city pairs across the region, and we're working with other future operators to consider other city pairs further afield."

Although both HAV's Airlander 10 and Lockheed's P-791 are technology demonstrators, and neither company has yet begun building a production aircraft, Gottlieb is convinced of the technology's potential. The strongest barriers to adoption of hybrid airships are, he argues, to do with perception.

"In Arabic there's one word to describe everything from a party balloon to a tethered aerostat to a hot-air balloon to a manned airship," he says. "So when you're speaking in Arabic and you use that word, people make an assumption that everything's the same - and it really isn't. So a big part of this is education. We need to help everybody understand what it is we're talking about, what's different about it, and why it is desirable - both for them and for us."

In the absence of a hybrid airship to fly in the UAE, Airships Arabia are investigating other options to progress this educative work. The company will be making a significant announcement at the Airshow on Tuesday that is intended to help bridge the awareness gap.

"There's a lot of worry about airships that is unjustified," Gottlieb says. "And of course, the best way to move beyond those concerns is to actually show people how safe they are, and how readily they can integrate into an existing air-traffic environment."

Hybrid Air Vehicles

Just as Airships Arabia has found that perception of what hybrid airships are and can do presents an obstacle to their adoption for commercial roles, the British company Hybrid Air Vehicles [HAV] believes the same is true when it comes to military or security applications.

"We're in an education and shaping phase at the moment, designed to get the customers understanding the technology and where it is," says Simon Evans, the company's defense and security business-development lead. The company currently has one aircraft - the Airlander 10 - that is going through certification with the European Aviation Safety Agency. The pre-production aircraft flies from the company's headquarters at Cardington in Bedfordshire, and access to test flights is helping HAV make converts to the airship cause.

"We had representatives of a UK government agency who procure aviation services [visit Cardington]," Evans says, "and they looked at it and said: 'I didn't realise it could do all of this, and we would be very interested in taking things forward.' We're trying to get over that lighter-than-air technology in a manned role that is not about a Hindenburg or a Zeppelin in the early 1900s. This is a new technology that is game-changing in capability."

HAV's decision to focus on military and security applications rather than commercial or civil use does not imply any lack of belief within the company on their system's capabilities outside the defense and security arena. Rather, the history of the Airlander product - it began life as the U.S. military's canceled LEMV (Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle) program - means the sole aircraft built so far had military use in mind from the beginning.

"The technology needs to prove itself in the market, as a hybrid aircraft," Evans says. "And the standard that we would look at initially would be looking at the military application because it was optimised for persistent endurance. Its fuel consumption and the undercarriage design is all optimised around the aircraft being in the air for a long time. The undercarriage, for instance, is a major element there: it is not designed to be used regularly, because in a manned military application the aircraft can stay airborne for up to five days; and at the moment it obscures a little bit of the view."

There is also a sense that thinking of the Airlander as a passenger-carrying vehicle may limit the thinking of those who might be looking for other capabilities from a future air system. Evans - who points to Saudi Arabia's interest in tethered aerostats for border security as evidence of applicability for hybrid airships in the Gulf region - stresses the breadth of potential applications on an aircraft with Airlander's combination of load-carriage capacity, available onboard power and space, and persistence.

"You can carry a lot of different sensors, so you start to get a greater utility in the minds of government and military agencies," he says. "It could do three or four different jobs while it's up in the air. It can do more things, and therefore it becomes a lot more attractive because it could do the role of two or three current air platforms."

There are risks associated with pursuing this kind of strategy when trying to identify a first customer for a new type of aircraft. The platform's versatility may make it appear to lack specific applicability for a forthcoming requirement, and militaries that have already purchased bespoke systems to carry out specific tasks may not believe they need another platform that can duplicate some - or all - of that capability. Evans argues that economics will provide a compelling reason for potential customers to consider the Airlander.

"If you look at payload versus cost of procurement and cost of operation, Airlander is orders of magnitude more efficient than existing platforms," he says. It's about winning over the contexts of traditional thinking."

And, like Arabian Airships' Geoffrey Gottlieb, Evans sees practical demonstrations as being the key to unlocking hybrid airships' potential.

"It's all well and good having Powerpoint slides," he says, "but the only way we're going to be able to [win over doubters] is through capability demonstrations. The aircraft we have now is ready, in its certification process through EASA, to do capability demonstrations, with payload on board, to customers or interested parties, and to explore what it could actually do in the context of a concept of operations for them."