In recent years, a number of companies have begun to revive the airship technology. This was an old technology that was abandoned for airplanes and helicopters.
Flying Whales in France and Hybrid Air Vehicles (UK), Lockheed Martin, Sergey Brin, a billionaire, all have airship projects that are primarily focused on cargo carrying. They have not yet begun to service customers.
Buoyant is determined to be the first.
This year, the startup was awarded Y Combinator's Startup Award. The goal is to build small unmanned airships that can move cargo middle-mile. Instead of depot-to home, think depot-to depot delivery. Ben Claman and Joe Figura, the founders of Buoyants, claim they can reduce delivery costs by half compared to small planes and helicopters. They claim they will succeed where others have failed by remaining small, instead of building huge, multi-hundred foot airships that require a lot capital to build and lots of gas to lift. Buoyants final vehicle will be approximately 60 feet in length.
Claman and Figura, both MIT hardware engineers, are spacecraft and antenna builders. Both were previously employed on projects that provided low-cost connectivity to remote areas, such as Alaska. Claman grew up in Alaska.
Claman stated that Joe and I were discussing the difficulty of getting actual goods to these locations. People are now shopping online and getting their goods delivered to these locations. Sometimes they have to wait for their items to arrive, sometimes even months.
Claman said that when YC was founded, the founders had envisioned building an airship similar to their prototype, a small craft capable, for example, of last-mile delivery for Amazon.
Talking to many companies revealed that the rural middle-mile problem is much more prevalent than the rural last-mile. If you have 5,000 people in a community, then you can subcontract the postal service to that person to deliver the last mile. It can be really difficult and expensive to get parcels from your main hub.
Buoyant created a hybrid electric battery airship to solve this problem. It generates 70% of its lift by using helium, which is lighter than air gas. Its tilt-rotor architecture accounts for 30% of the lift. Buoyant claims that this hybrid design solves the problem of cargo drop off. Airships can risk launching their weight back into the air if they offload it. The tilt-rotor allows an airship to fly closer to a helicopter when it takes off and lands.
Helicopters must be capable of lifting weights of 1,500 to 10,000 lbs of carbon fiber or stainless steel. The Buoyants helicopter will only have to lift the payload and its airframe. Buoyants founders claim this will save capital and allow the ship to run independently, eliminating the need for pilots.
Buoyant built and flew four prototype airships. The sub-scale ship is 20 feet in length and can fly at speeds up to 35 MPH. It has a payload capacity up to 10 pounds. However, the ultimate goal is to create an airship capable of carrying up to 650 lbs of cargo at a speed of 60 MPH.
The Part 107 license has allowed the airship to operate. It will first need to obtain two certifications before it can begin serving customers: a type certificate verifying the craft's airworthiness and operator certifications for those who fly them. Figura stated on HackerNews that both require significant flight hours. This will be our primary development activity.
The company plans to continue developing its flight control system and performing a field demonstration with the prototype sub-scale in the next few months. Buoyant plans to build a full-scale model next year. Claman stated that they will likely make it in-house.
Buoyant will need to take these next steps in order to convert the $5 million worth of letters of intent it signed with potential customers, including an Alaskan regional airline carrier, into formal contracts.
Buoyant has also two pilot programs in place: one for the sub-scale prototype in this fall and another with the full-scale ship within a year, both with logistics/parcel delivery businesses.
Claman said that people built blimps long before computers existed. People had been building blimps for a long time before aerodynamics was fully understood. There is a lot data. Airship development is not dead. Airships have been developed continuously for over 100 years.