High Speed Solar-Powered Blimps Coming

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Zero emissions air travel has been generating a lot of buzz lately. And companies across the world are busy designing and testing solar-powered helium blimps. Some show enormous promise as high-speed, high capacity cargo transports; others are being tested at near space altitudes as an economical substitute for satellites, serving a wide spectrum of communications and surveying needs. The race is on. Blimps are going solar in a big way.

Giant Cargo Ships

They could be the future of long haul cargo transport. Giant airships covered with PV solar panels propelled forward by high efficiency electric motors.  Aerodynamically designed to enhance lift and inflated with inert helium (which is nonflammable), these new cargo airships would cruise at much higher altitudes than old blimps, rising to heights of 30,000 feet. At these altitudes, airships benefit from a 30% efficiency boost of solar power.

Flying at up to 180 MPH

The new solar airships are designed to sail well above cloud levels, so sunlight is always available—up to 8 hours a day. And unlike the dirigibles of old, these sleekly designed airships soaring through thinner air would fly much faster, reaching speeds of 180 miles per hour and cruising at just under 100 miles per hour. That’s quite efficient when you consider that ships like these could be designed to carry up to 60 tons of cargo, buoyed by millions of cubic feet of helium.

Easy Landings and Take-Offs

Blimps don’t need a runway. They can take off and land in a small piece of real estate. And they can carry far more than a helicopter or traditional VTOL aircraft. Most would only need water to weigh them down for loading and unloading. Result: blimps can carry far more cargo for a lot less cost than other aircraft. Consider how versatile and handy they would be for disaster relief and emergency rescue operations.

China Goes Big On Blimps

China’s motto must be go big or go home. Seems everything it does when it comes to solar is huge. Take the Yuanmeng (which means “dream”), a monstrously massive lighter than air ship that recently sailed the skies from Xilinhot in Inner Mongolia. The 75-meter-long blimp soared to a near-space altitude of 20 kilometers. Fully inflated, the ship occupies 18,000 cubic meters, stands 22 meters tall and can carry up to 6.3 metric tons of payload.

The Yuanmeng gets its lift from helium and relies mostly on solar power to run its electronics. But perhaps the biggest benefit inherent in the design of these new solar powered airships is their ability to remain airborne for up to six months per flight; this, thanks to its huge array of solar panels covering the aircraft. Some say the airship will be used for communications, since it’s packed with wideband communication, data relay, high-definition observation, and spatial imaging systems.

Passenger Blimps Could be Next

Rather than zipping across the skies at 500 miles per hour in a jet, solar-powered helium-based airliners could give passengers a much more entertaining ride. Albeit slower that jet flight, these vessels could be designed more like luxury cruise ships, giving passengers a closer view of earth’s natural beauty and man-made landmarks. Imagine cruising over the Grand Canyon at just 500 feet, hovering over the pyramids at 400 feet, or briefly stopping over Paris at night. These sightseeing trips would last for hours, with ample time to take in every nuance of what these locales have to offer.

As the efficiency of solar panels rise, airships like these will be able to travel longer and carry more cargo. Looks like the sky’s the limit when it comes to solar.

Posted on Tuesday, March 15th, 2016