Innovation as Grave Robbing
By Shlomo Maital
Airlander: 80% Less Fuel
One way to innovate is to rob graves; find old ideas that failed, dig them up, revive them, spruce them up and make them work. The British firm Hybrid Air Vehicles has done just that! The future may lie with airships like Airlander.
On Thursday May 6, 1937, the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed, when it tried to dock with a mooring mast at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey. There were 97 people on board. Of them, 35 passengers and crew were killed, and a ground crewman. The tragic scene was broadcast live on radio, with play-by-play by a distraught broadcaster, who broke down. The live account of the disaster spelled the end for hydrogen-filled airships. It traumatized air ship technology for decades.
Now, 77 years later, comes the revival. According to Matt McFarland, writing in the Washington Post, March 6, a British company bought a spy ship (helium blimp) built for the US Army, took it apart, shipped it to Britain, and is finding new uses for it. The Washington Post reports that “the Airlander is able to carry large payloads over long distances very efficiently. Hybrid Air Vehicles’ project to develop the technology further is being funded by a Government grant as well as private finance from individuals including Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer of the band Iron Maiden.”
The company plans to build more of the airships; an Airlander costs about $40 million to build, and a version that could carry 55 tons would cost about $100 million. It is 300 feet in length, 60 feet longer than the biggest jets from Boeing and Airbus. It doesn’t need a runway to land. It has four diesel engines and is helium-filled. (Filling the Hindenburg with hydrogen, highly flammable and explosive, was simply engineering madness. Helium doesn’t burn). The Airlander sits about 20 people and can carry between 3,300 pounds and 11 tons. And it uses 80 per cent less fuel than a jet.
“ There is now a worldwide competition to develop cargo airships,” wrote Barry Prentice, a professor at the University of Manitoba in a recent paper. “The most important remaining barrier to a cargo airship industry is the lack of business confidence.”
The long-lived ghost of the Hindenburg still lives. But, look to see many more cargo airships filling the skies in future. Can YOU innovate by robbing a grave — reviving an old failed idea ready to emerge and save the world?