Project spotlight: Hybrid Air Vehicles

Founded in 2007, Hybrid Air Vehicles is the company behind the innovative Airlander range of hybrid aircraft. They utilise new aerospace technology that combines the best characteristics of fixed wing aircraft with helicopters and "lighter-than-air" technology to create a new breed of hyper-efficient aircraft, with a significantly lower carbon footprint and operating cost than other forms of air transport. The Airlander 10 is designed to stay airborne for up to five days at a time to fulfill a wide range of communication and survey roles, as well as cargo carrying and tourist passenger flights.

I talked to Mike Durham, Technical Director, about their vehicle and the development process.

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Please tell us about how it all started. How did you arrive at the current design?

The Airlander idea was first looked at by one of HAV’s predecessor companies in the early 1990s.  Roger Munk and I were the creators and the design is the natural culmination of airship developments that stretch back into the 1970s. The hybrid air vehicle concept brings together a hull that can produce three times the aerodynamic lift of a conventional cigar shaped hull with the buoyancy you would normally associate with airships and vectored thrust which allows the vehicle to maneuver at low speeds. Over the last couple of decades a number of design studies and wind tunnels tests have honed the design.

What is the vision for this aircraft?

Hybrid Air Vehicles’ goal is to change the world of aviation through Airlander.

  • We believe aircraft should be able to land and take-off anywhere.
  • We believe aircraft should be able to fly for weeks at a time.
  • We believe aircraft should be low cost and should pollute as little as possible.

Airlander takes the best of aeroplanes, helicopters, and airships and combines them with the latest innovations in materials to create a truly revolutionary aircraft. The Airlander is a “hybrid” of an aeroplane and an airship – we get up to 40% of our lift from the aerodynamic wing shape of our aircraft, and 60% from the helium fill – it is therefore inherently more efficient than other forms of air transport. It uses the very latest fabrics to maintain its shape and is technologically years ahead of the competition. Airlander has flown before under a US Government programme, but is now being developed for commercial purposes, such as freight, remote access, aid distribution, advertising, surveillance, communications and luxury passenger transport.

Airlander aims to revolutionise transport and travel by:

  • Being one of the lowest carbon emissions aircraft in the world, like for like
  • Having game-changing endurance (it can stay airborne for weeks rather than hours)
  • Providing significantly lower delivery cost for airborne freight
  • Being able to land anywhere (water, land, desert, ice) thus opening up new point-to-point routes to previously inaccessible areas
  • Focusing initially on Airlander 10, which has a 10 tonne payload, and ultimately could produce a range of hybrid aircraft capable of carrying up to 1000 tonnes

What innovative technologies are used?

The Airlander 10 is underpinned by a number of innovative technologies including high tenacity fabrics, fibre optic control systems, significant use of carbon fibre for primary structures, and many more that we don’t intend to tell the world about!

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How big is the team?

Currently 40, and likely to be around 80 by the end of 2015. But during the US Army program when we built it we were up to 400 including our supply chain businesses. We are likely to get back to those sort of numbers of employees again as we move forward into production.

What have been main challenges in the development?

The main challenges were predominantly around the very short delivery timescale for the first vehicle. From a starting point of a GA drawing we delivered all the flight hardware into the USA in 14 months, an unbelievably quick turn-round for the world’s biggest aircraft.

What are critical components and technologies allow the concept to work?

The vehicle structure must be as light as possible. This means we use a lot of carbon fibre and glass fibre in the hard structures. All components, engines etc., are hung from the side of a fabric hull so a lot of science goes in to the design of the interfaces between the major elements of the vehicle.

What software tools and CAD are you using?

We make use of CFD and FEA tools from ANSYS and the University of Liverpool. We also utilize the Solidworks CAD package and make use a number of simulation environment tools.

The Team at HAV has proven that it is has all the skills and tools necessary to deliver a complex aircraft to flight in a remarkably short timeframe so we don’t feel we are missing much from the technical side.

What qualities do you value in engineers?

The project and company tend to attract a very high standard of candidate and we have not experienced any issues when it comes to attracting staff. We have a comprehensive recruitment and assessment strategy that has been well tested over the years and has created a cohesive and strong technical and operations team.

What is your general suggestion for aerospace engineers?

Study hard, try and get in for work placements. Everyone who gets into aerospace loves it for a reason. Don’t stop dreaming and figure out how to make it happen!

Have you used 3D printing during development?

We haven’t used 3D printing in the development of Airlander to date but are constantly assessing options for effective prototyping so eventually it will find its place at HAV.

What is the environmental impact compared to traditional aircraft?

Depending on what task and role we are modeling we come out at anywhere between 20% and 40% of the fuel burn and operating costs of traditional like-for-like aircraft. That is a huge leap in environmental impact.

We have been investigating an all-electric Airlander, with potential for solar panels. We will initially focus on getting the current Airlander as is in the air. Once we’re successfully flying, we will certainly be further developing this area. Given the "free" lift we get from the helium, the large surface area and the space and carrying capacity for batteries (which makes us unique amongst aircraft types) we are likely to be amongst the first aircraft that has a commercially viable electric (and potentially solar) component.

The UK Government’s Knowledge Transfer Network (part of InnovateUK, which is part of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills) have invited us to speak at an event in May about the development of all-electric aircraft, on the subject of, “Airlander 10 and the route to an all-electric aircraft”. So very much on our agenda, and clearly the €2.5 million EU Horizon 2020 grant that was in some part based around our innovation and likely fast growth in this area.

HAV

What is the future of aerospace? What kind of innovation will we see?

Aerospace has to solve its fossil fuel burning issue. At present it is anywhere from 2-4% of global carbon emissions (depending on which figures you read). But other industries are rapidly reducing their emissions – aviation isn’t (each individual aircraft is getting fractionally more efficient, but there are many more aircraft and many more passengers flying – particularly in Asia). So within a few years, aviation will become a much higher percentage of global carbon emissions and this issue will become more of an immediate problem for the industry. Efficiency will be key – and with the standard passenger aircraft design, there are limits to this efficiency. Other types and designs of aircraft will need to be developed to achieve this, such as the Airlander.

Remotely piloted aircraft will become the norm. This will revolutionise flying – both for large aircraft and for small. It may permit more planes in the skies and closer flying – so we get the 1920’s and 1960’s visions of personal aircraft as ubiquitous as private cars coming closer to reality.

There is no shortage of SMEs and other companies innovating in aerospace. The major factor holding this back is funding – aerospace is an expensive business (inherently and due to its highly regulated nature). The funding tends to go to large and certain projects (just like Disney would be more likely to produce a live action Cinderella or a Frozen 2 which are almost certain to be Box Office Hits, rather than a more ambitious project that could be the next huge thing, but may drift along and just break-even). This is the nature of large business with limited resources, and is unlikely to change unless the resource supply (trained engineers and funding) changes significantly.

Thank you for this interview Chris! They’ll also be advertising for some engineering roles in the next few days so you may like to keep an eye out for them on their website.

Airlander 10 technical details:

Envelope Volume: 38,000 m³ (1,340,000 ft³)
Overall Dimensions:
- length 92 m (302 ft)
- width 43.5 m (143 ft)
- height 26 m (85 ft)
Endurance: 5 days manned
Altitude: up to 20,000 ft (6,100 m)
Speed:
- cruise 80 Knots (148 km/h)
- loiter 20 Knots (37 km/h)
Total Weight: 20,000 kg (44,100 lbs)
Payload capacity: up to 10,000 kg (22,050 lbs)