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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