Hydrogen Airship Fantasy

by Dan Grossman on February 3, 2010

Imaginary Aircruise clipper

The press falls for publicity stunt… Hook, Line, & Dirigible:

What began as a fun exercise by a London design firm — to publicize the visionary creative thinking of the firm and its client, Samsung — has been picked up as if it were a real “news story” by CNN, the Telegraph, and other media outlets.

Tragedy at LakehurstThe firm of Seymourpowell, which has previously designed vibrating sex toys and packaging for tampon applicators and cat food (but has never engineered an aircraft) recently announced “plans” for a 100-passenger, octahedron-shaped, 870-foot tall luxury airship called the Aircruise, inflated with over 11 million cubic feet of flammable hydrogen, just like the Hindenburg.

Apparently no-one told CNN or the Telegraph that this is an amusing design exercise and not a real aeronautical possibility, and they didn’t check with any engineers before printing the Seymourpowell press release.

This was a great publicity move which generated significant media coverage.  And there is no denying that Seymourpowell’s airship fantasy is beautiful: It inspires people to imagine the possibilities of the future, just as they intended, and shows that Seymourpowell and Samsung can dream great dreams.  In fact, it follows a long tradition of airship futurism, in which airships have been used to illustrate the promise of a brighter tomorrow.

In cooperation with its client, Samsung, the firm produced a lavish CGI video with depictions of the ship’s modern interiors, which include passenger apartments complete with kitchens and cooking ranges (always a good idea on a hydrogen airship).

Unfortunately a few media outlets now have egg on their face for passing this along as a real project, without first checking the facts with aeronautical engineers or aerospace consultants.

Even the tiniest bit of journalistic skepticism would have raised some questions:

docking-station

  • The airship is shaped like a giant wall, the worst possible aerodynamic design, as opposed to a more streamlined form;  it would require tremendous amounts of energy to overcome wind resistance for forward motion, assuming it could fly against headwinds at all.
  • The video focuses mainly on the beautifully-designed interiors, but interior design has never made an aircraft fly, and the focus on lounges, penthouses, and other features unrelated to flight should have been another question mark for journalists.  (The Battlestar Galactica has cool interiors, too, but that doesn’t mean it can fly.)
  • The ship is supposed to operate from a modernistic docking station, but since the aircraft is shaped like a giant sail virtually any gust of wind would drive the ship into the station’s pincer-like claws, shredding the envelope and causing a disaster of Hindenburg-like proportions.
  • Reporters should also have noticed that the floating diamond has no visible means of propulsion or directional control (no propellers, thrusters, or engines) and no visible control surfaces.  But instead of raising questions about the design, multiple news stories have claimed the airship will carry passengers from London to New York in 37 hours, at speeds up to 150 km/h, even faster than the ill-fated (but at least streamlined) Hindenburg.
  • And then, of course, there’s the hydrogen.

The Seymourpowell publicity campaign was brilliant, but the incident serves as a warning to journalists who are tempted to rely on a press release about a technical subject without seeking independent verification of the facts.

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    { 33 comments… read them below or add one }

    Design Lover November 24, 2010 at 8:20 am

    Thanks for this post. I’m totally into design, and follow eductation for it here in Arnhem (Holland). Keep up the good work! I’ll keep following posts on this blog.

    Cheers from Holland

    Reply

    James Bond October 30, 2010 at 11:48 am

    Hi folks,
    The situation in Google search for airship is getting worse, if you look at page one there is only Airship Ventures (Who are friends of Google owners) on page 1, to represent actual airship companies with a real airship. Apart from high profile information sites there seem to be more spam, scam and virtual world only airship company sites than real ones. Seymour Powell is a joke in comparison with the main offenders who are busy trying to find investors to fleece with their vitual world or flying toy airship companies.
    Regards JB (LTA comedy http://www.hybridblimp.net )

    Reply

    Timothy M September 4, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    Someone really needs to edit the wikipedia page for it, otherwise many people could be caught out – whoever wrote it up neglected to mention any of this, or just didn’t know. Unfortunately I can’t do it as I have no experience editing wikipedia pages. So someone out there, fix those facts.

    Reply

    Jerin May 22, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    Turtle Airships, Skycat, Cargolifter, Aereon-26, how many times must we fail before we ACTUALLY succeed in building a noteworthy rigid airship? I pray to GOD that the Sunship and Aeroscraft ML-866 pan out because both have a pre-existing companies backing them instead of hot air, pardon the pun. Not to mention they aren’t as big as the SS United States(Hi dynalifter), at 120 and 210 feet, respectively. Cross your fingers, everyone! And don’t forget your tickets!

    Reply

    Michael Hopp May 13, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    Beautiful idea, poor design. I’d seen this myself a while back, and the first thing that I thought was “How terribly un-aerodynamic.”

    The second thing I thought was “Hydrogen?! That can’t be right…”

    Yet again, great idea but poor concept. Just like that Soviet design that had virtually no room for gas cells…

    Reply

    Christian Vogt March 31, 2011 at 7:36 am

    Bist Du der Michael von Cl ???

    Reply

    Cary Cupka April 20, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Add to your list of “gullible” media outlets non other than the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). Their April 2010 issue of Sport Pilot carried a news clip titled “Airship promises green luxury airship travel” on page 16 in the Aeroinnovations section highlighting “cutting edge developments.”

    I reckon they might as well have said “Airship promises heaven on earth.” I could jump off here into a little “harmless” cynicism of my own, but I’ll spare your readers the venting.

    Thanks for helping me come back from my little flight of fancy. Now I have to go around recovering my integrity with everyone I talked to about this in my social circles….

    Reply

    Gary March 6, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    A wonderful exercise in creativity. It’s always nice to dream a little.

    Reply

    Dallas S February 9, 2010 at 4:19 am

    But it has given us all an opportunity to stretch our minds, hasn’t it? Remember what they said about heavier than air aviation before it was proven…
    Be careful with your words; use the best, most digestible words to slate anything,,, you may have to eat them later.

    Reply

    Denis February 8, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    your guys are so negative and narrow minded!

    Reply

    Matt O February 9, 2010 at 3:32 am

    Yeah we sure are narrow minded. Apologies are going out starting now. It became clear to me after I watched the YouTube video that this Airship will be Skippered by none other than Harry Potter, and the propulsion and control system is the always green PFM (Pure Friggin’ Magic) System.

    I wish to order my ticket on this new Airship’s inaugural flight, but I demand that the destination be the Planet of Pandora! See how open-minded I am?

    Reply

    Hugh Ashton February 8, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    The magic phrase in Japan, where I live, is “Eco”. To be fair, many Japanese are seriously concerned about certain aspects of the environment (not all, by any means!), but the over-use of “Eco” on everything from cat food to airships (I exaggerate for effect) does indeed have a mind-numbing influence on consumers here as well.

    Reply

    Hans Paul Stroehle, Zeppelin Pilot February 8, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    It is not possible to get permission from any authority to create such a commercial passenger aircraft with the lifting gas of hydrogen.

    I am frustrated about the fact that such a utopian DESIGN study gets that much attention from apparently serious press, when obviously ZERO research has been done by the journalists on that. A simple contact to any of the most famous airship companies, such as ZEPPELIN, The Lightship Group, AMS, The Goodyear Airship Corporation would have been enough to find out that this kind of thing can’t be more serious than a simple design joke. By simply using google immediate contact with the airship list of John Dziadecki could have been established: airship-list@lists.Colorado.EDU

    After 15 years involvement in airships, 13 of them as a pilot, being instructor and examiner of Zeppelin pilots, I have seen many strange ideas on airships. This is by far the one that has the least chance of even getting into a concept status. Every trainee journalist could have found that out in a heartbeat.

    Reply

    Dan (Airships.net) February 8, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Paul. It is always a pleasure to have you visit the blog.

    Just by way of introduction, Paul is an instructor pilot in the Zeppelin NT, and he is one of only a handful of pilots in the world licensed to fly a Zeppelin. Among his other achievements, Paul and Steve Fossett co-piloted the Zeppelin NT which broke the world speed record for airships in 2004.

    Reply

    James Bond July 4, 2010 at 12:15 am

    Hi folks,
    The Zeppelin NT is an interesting airship to fly and I thought the year I spent flying one does add to a CV. BUT you have to be realistic that after I assisted DZR to sell the no 2 NT to the NEC in Japan, where the advertising budgets are very high and passengers will pay very high ticket prices, the NEC, a very experienced airship operator in Japan, went bust recently for 15 million dollars, the biggest one airship operator failure in history. Only the military could fund the development of such an expensive type of airship, but they were not interested and only mega rich friends of Google can afford to buy one.
    The fastest airship in the world is in reality the Skyship 600L (Lycoming engines) that can do 70 kts as it has 600 hp (2 times 300) with a volume of 7100 cu mtrs, the NT has 3 times 200 hp engines, but a volume of 8800 cu mtrs. Steve was a great pilot, but only he was willing to pay the FIA fees involved for the record.

    Reply

    Moongrim February 8, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    Calling Dr. Pangloss! Your ship is ready!

    Reply

    Alan February 8, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    This video has been released a little too early—April the 1st would have been most appropriate!

    Reply

    Kellen February 8, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    yeah its shaped in the upward position..
    tampons and vibrators. HAHA. someone was on something when they thought of this!

    Reply

    Dallas S February 8, 2010 at 9:16 am

    Sure it’s an untenable idea for all practical purposes and every silver lining has it’s cloud, but there are some stunning interior design ideas for anyone thinking of upgrading their home, office, workplace, bar etc. Thanks SeymourPowell, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

    Reply

    Hans Paul Stroehle, Zeppelin Pilot February 8, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Great as a design study, but not a serious airship project that might ever happen.

    Reply

    Lombard Street February 7, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Just like AlGore, this childish fantasy is “green” because the willing BigMedia dupes say so. The “journalists” should ask where the hydrogen, aluminum, plastic, etc. will come from and how much pollution the construction and operation will emit. Clue: the production of hydrogen releases massive emissions and and the other stuff is worse. Leftists believe in every kind of free lunch . . . that comes out of your pocket.

    Reply

    Hugh Ashton February 4, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    As the writer of a novel involving a fictional Zeppelin, I have to say that my airship is a lot more airworthy than this beautiful piece of computer graphics.

    Obviously designed by someone who believes that function and form are unconnected, and has very little idea of how things actually work, this so-called “airship” has no visible means of propulsion. The proposal talks vaguely about “fuel cells” and “solar panels” in an attempt to make the project appear “green” but goes over details with a broad brush (except for the stateroom interiors, which presumably were more to the design firm’s taste than airship propulsion systems).

    But, as noted above, what is particularly worrying is the lack of engineering commonsense (it doesn’t even need expertise) in the editorial department of CNN and other mass media. With a lack of critical ability like this within the “news” media, it is no wonder that politicians are able to make the most ridiculous statements and go unchallenged.

    Reply

    Tael February 4, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    I read recently that anything greater than a few cubic feet of hydrogen is considered a bomb…

    Reply

    James Bond July 4, 2010 at 12:17 am

    Very true!!

    Reply

    Thomas Goodey February 4, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    If the designers had honestly said that this flying hotel was to be held up in the air by one type of magic and pushed through the air by another sort of magic, that would have been perfectly acceptable (given the McGuffin), and it would have been a nice design exercise and worthy of respect. But to pretend that the thing can actually be made within the constraints of current materials and physics is just…. abysmal, beneath contempt, words fail me. That Samsung has become involved is deeply to their discredit, and that CNN seems to take it all seriously is… just abysmal. Just pathetic. Just disgraceful. Have they no editors?

    Reply

    Rick Zitarosa February 4, 2010 at 10:23 am

    While a gas of “necessity” for early Lighter-Than-Air operations, hydrogen was gradually replaced by non-flammable helium as the latter gas became available in pratical quantities beginning in the 1920′s.

    In addition to losses of airships in combat conditions due to hydrogen fire/explosion during the First World War there were several spectacular accidents in the 1920′s and 1930′s which highlighted the danger of the use of this gas (the HINDENBURG being only one of many hydrogen-related airship accidents, albeit the most famous.)

    The United States Navy, which pioneered the large-scale use of helium in its airships beginning in the 1920′s continued to use hydrogen for training balloons as it was deemed wasteful to put helium in a balloon which might touch down and have to be deflated hundreds of miles from its starting point after the long training flights with student aviators “learning the ropes” about airborne air currents, weather and their affects on Lighter Than Air craft. Manuals from the period express STRINGENT cautions on the use of hydrogen (” never release hydrogen gas when thunderstorm activity is present ” ” never discharge hydrogen gas too quickly from a gas cylinder as the friction of the gas exiting the valve can cause an explosion ” ” hydrogen gas mixed with more than 18% can be considered an inflammable and potentially explosive mixture.” )

    Precautions aside, a 1943 balloon accident which killed 5 student Naval Aviators in a sheet of flame convinced the U.S. Navy that even with extensive precautions and the benefit of cost savings the use of hydrogen gas could not be justified even for training purposes.

    The idea of carrying paying passengers using hydrogen gas is ludicrous…even if any insurance underwriter would agree to it.

    Rick Zitarosa
    Point Pleasant, NJ

    Reply

    Marc de Piolenc February 4, 2010 at 9:38 am

    The issue here is not the use of hydrogen as a lifting gas – that is not beyond the realm of possibility, PROVIDED that adequate precautions are taken. Unfortunately, everything else about this scheme is, and its uncritical propagation by a news organization whose first instinct should be to check it thoroughly is a travesty of journalism. At the very least, somebody who knows the first thing about lighter-than-air flight should have seen the alleged “technical plan,” but this is clearly not the case or it would have gone no further.

    Reply

    Dan Nachbar February 4, 2010 at 8:50 am

    CNN recently fired its entire science team including their
    on air guy Miles O’Brien. This sort of “news” is the result.

    Reply

    James Bond July 4, 2010 at 1:43 am

    Good stuff,
    I will go back to watching their news today! Much better than the BBC who banned me from comments or blogs for including a web site link. I had to change my e mail address and switch IP as a result. Not posting to them again.
    Regards JB

    Reply

    Erik Andersson February 4, 2010 at 4:50 am

    Isn’t there laws against the use of hydrogen as lifting gas?

    Reply

    Dan Nachbar February 4, 2010 at 8:48 am

    Yes, the FAA airship airworthiness rules explicitly
    prohibit the use of hydrogen as a lifting gas.

    Reply

    Vitaly Voloshin March 20, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Hi!

    Could you, please, give me the number of the airworthiness regulation, where it is clearly stated that hydrogen is prohibited on airships?

    I am working on the airship project (different from the one, described in the article) and try to prove to coordinators that hydrogen is prohibited, but they do not believe me without actual document.

    Please, for the sake of the safety of the future airships, give me any clue of in what instruction can I find it?

    Thank you very much in advance.

    Reply

    Patrick Russell February 3, 2010 at 9:34 am

    As a basic design exercise (not an airship-design exercise, but as just a general one) it’s an interesting concept. It actually looks to me like something that would have been neat to see as a set in, for instance, a Star Wars movie. (And, in fact, the interiors remind me a lot of Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back.)

    But as a viable, real-world LTA concept? Not even close.

    As you point out, Dan, there are no visible propellers or thrusters, and no control surfaces – unless we’re to believe that the concave sides are themselves the control surfaces and are supposed to act like sails, with the wind being the source of propulsion. But then, that would require at least small directional thrusters, like the retro-rockets on a spacecraft… and again, where are they?

    And even if this were the case, then the forward movement of the craft, speed included, would be more or less dependent on the vagaries of the wind, like the old clipper ships.

    So, as far as propulsion is concerned, there’s no visible way that this concept could possibly work, especially given the promise of a top speed of 150 km/hr and a 37-hour transatlantic crossing.

    And then, of course, there’s the hydrogen.

    No serious passenger airship venture is sold on the basis of the ship being inflated with hydrogen. The liability problems alone would kill any chance of attracting serious investors, and no insurance company would ever even consider underwriting such a concept. It’s not that hydrogen airships are illegal, per se – it’s that nobody is going to risk their money on them. And without funding and insurance, you’ll never get an airship off of the drawing board, let alone off the ground.

    Dan, you also make a very good operational point about the mooring setup. Again, this looks like a great design for a sci fi film, but I see no way that it actually works in terms of real-world physics. The video animation shows the craft making what is essentially the same sort of flying moor (high landing) that the US Navy used to make with its Zeppelins, and that the Hindenburg was making at the time it caught fire. This requires a mooring cable running from the main attachment point on the airship to the main attachment point on the mooring station, as well as at least two lateral yaw ropes attached to the airship to keep it from being blown from side to side during the docking maneuver.

    Plus, unless the ship is designed with a strong vectored-thrust propulsion system, you need a third rope attached to the ship to anchor it aft so that a tail wind doesn’t crush the ship against the mooring tower.

    I see none of this in this video, nor do I see anywhere for the landing ropes to be anchored on the base of that mooring station other than the piers… and unless the entire station is designed to rotate, piers and all, there’s no way to account for specific changes in wind direction.

    All of which goes right back to your original point, Dan, about a gust of wind driving the craft against the mooring station and impaling it on one of the docking claws. Unless they’ve somehow managed to find a way to moor a ship this large without any sort of landing ropes, and with no visible means of propulsion, it’s almost guaranteed to eventually pile up against that docking tower.

    Granted, the hydrogen in the ship would need an ignition source to do any real damage, but even a crash without a fire would be dangerous as hell for passengers and crew, especially if the mooring station is out on the water like this.

    All of which leads to the inescapable conclusion that this is anything but a serious LTA project proposal. That CNN would run with it as a news story as though the “Aircruise” were a viable concept rather than an engineer’s flight of fancy is utterly ridiculous, and in my opinion it shows that CNN tends to be more committed to “infotainment” than it is to actual news.

    Reply

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