Blimps / disastersGiant blimps to ferry hospitals, buildings to disaster zones

Published 11 October 2010

Giant airship will be able to lift up to 150 tons — more than seven times the weight that helicopters are able to carry; the airship, which will be able to move aid — or even portable hospitals and entire buildings — to remote areas or disaster zones, harnesses aerostatic lift, meaning it is able to fly using lighter-than-air (LTA) gases that keep it buoyant rather than aerodynamic lift

Photo-rendering of SkyLifter-delivered hospitals on Mt. Everest // Source:

Aussie company SkyLifter is developing a giant flying saucer that can transport buildings for long distances anywhere in the world.

The airship, dubbed the “SkyLifter,” would be able to lift up to 150 tons — more than seven times the weight that helicopters are able to carry.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Glenda Kwek writes that the designers of SkyLifter, English-Australian Jeremy Fitton and Englishman Charles Luffman, hope to power it using bio-diesel fuel and solar panels.

There is a massive need for this,” SkyLifter’s investor relations partner Sam Mokhtari told Kwek in a phone call from London.

Potential uses for a successful commercial model of the SkyLifter include moving aid or even portable hospitals to remote areas — such as rural regions or disaster zones — which have limited or no available infrastructure such as roads, Mokhtari said.

The company hopes it will one day also become part of the tourism market, where travelers can fly slowly above landscapes from one destination to another, as they currently do on cruise ships.

One hundred years ago, airships were the rage. [This technology] needs to be brought up to date. People want a greener product and … we are looking at alternative forms of transport.”

Mokhtari said the company had so far built Betty, a three-meter mini-SkyLifter, and Vikk,i, an 18-meter-wide tethered version of the airship, and plans to construct an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) prototype in the next two to three years.

Lucy, the 150-meter prototype, is expected to be completed in about six to seven years, he said.

Kwek writes that the airship, which will be made using “strong laminated fabric,” harnesses aerostatic lift — meaning it is able to fly using lighter-than-air (LTA) gases that keep it buoyant — rather than aerodynamic lift.

Unlike heavier-than-air (HTA) fixed or rotary-wing aircraft such as aircraft and helicopters that use aerodynamics to fly, the SkyLifter would be able to move using propellers attached to a small control pod suspended from a rod below the main saucer-like blimp. Its top speed is expected to be about 45 knots for a maximum travel distance of about 2,000 kilometers.

Mokhtari would not speculate on the cost of building such airships, but added that, while it has been a “slow process of building the case” of the SkyLifter, the company had “made miracles happen in a year” and had many interested parties keen to invest in the technology.

Aerostat technology featured in the headlines last week after a $8.9 million helium balloon was used during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India.

Kwek notes, though, that commercial uses for aerostat craft have not always taken off. In the mid-1990s, a German company tried to build a heavy-lift airship called the Cargolifter, but fell into insolvency in 2002, leaving behind millions of dollars of debt and a massive hanger in Brandenburg that was converted into an artificial indoor tropical resort.

The first rigid airship that became commercially successful was the Zeppelin, built by Count Zeppelin in the early twentieth century and used by the Germans for military missions during the First World War.

Passenger-carrying airships using both helium and hydrogen were developed in the following years, although the explosion of the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg airship in the United States in 1937 eventually ended such modes of travel.

Today, airships are more likely to be used as an alternative form of aerial advertising.

Kwek writes that the U.S. government is also reviving its interest in airships as surveillance tools, with the department of defense reportedly investing about $1.7 billion into researching and developing unmanned aerial vehicles last year.