Is the World Finally Ready for an Airship Renaissance?

(GERMANY OUT) Landing of the airship 'Graf Zeppelin'- undated- Photographer: Presse-Illustrationen Heinrich HoffmannVintage property of ullstein bild (Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Landing of the airship 'Graf Zeppelin' Photo: Heinrich Hoffmann/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

Not so long from now, the sky is going to be a weird place. Facebook is planning to fly solar-powered drones with the wingspan of a Boeing 747 in order to keep the world in internet. NASA's working on a plane with 18 battery-powered electric motors attached to its wings. Currently, two pilots are circumnavigating the globe in Solar Impulse, a plane powered entirely by the sun. (At the end of March, they had reached Mandalay.) And, in Europe, a team of engineers and other academics have been working to make real the perennial air travel of the future: airships.

The team working on the project (officially, the Multibody Advanced Airship for Transport) describes its creation as "a strange airship." And it's actually not just one airship — it's a whole system. There's a feeder system of smaller craft that would ferry people and freight up into to the sky, where they would dock with a larger cruiser. The cruiser itself — which looks more like a flying saucer than it does the zeppelins of the past — would follow a set route around the world. Here's a model of what it might look like when a smaller ship meets up with the large one:

In some ways, this isn't so crazy. "Even if it's strangely shaped, it's a quite conventional airship in terms of manufacturing," says Michele Trancossi, an engineer on the project team at the University of Modena e Reggio Emilia. The real challenge was designing the feeder ships (which would change shape in response to pressure levels as the ship ascends) and the energy system — these ships, like Solar Impulse, would use the sun as a primary energy source.

In the near future, the most likely application of this technology would be to create a telecommunications system that could complement satellite systems. But in the most fun version of this project's future, the airships transport people in style around the world. "The comfort we aim to produce is similar to what we have with a boat," says Trancossi. "The space for passengers would be about five times larger than a plane's. You could sleep in a bed during a flight."

Airships would move more slowly than passenger jets, though, and their speed would be more dramatically affected by whether they were traveling against or with the wind. "Wind is our enemy," says Trancossi. But, in theory, the airship would make up for its relatively pokiness in comfort and convenience. The feeder ships would be able to land vertically in a relatively small space, like the center of a town: imagine that, like taking the train, taking an airship would mean traveling a short distance to a central station and boarding without much hassle. Not only would it be more energy efficient, it could be the definition of traveling in style.