The sub US$200,000 family aircraft – the Sky Yacht
By Mike Hanlon
December 11, 2006
December 12, 2006 Skyacht Aircraft has created a whisper quiet, steerable, Personal Blimp capable of sustained and affordable flight. Under development for four years, the first Personal Blimp, named Airship Alberto, made its first flight on October 27, 2006, becoming the first and only aircraft to meet this seemingly straightforward goal. The Personal Blimp uses hot air (rather than Helium) for lift and silent electric motors for propulsion and is hence a hot air balloon that can be flown, steered and landed in perfect quiet offering passengers a serene flight experience. It can hover and steer around objects making it ideal for, amongst other things, eco-tourism, aerial photography and film-making. It’s due at market in about two years for a price under US$200,000 compared to the smallest helium airship which costs US$2,000,000+ while a top-notch helium ship costs more than US$12 million. When not in use, the Personal Blimp can be deflated and folded for storage (much like a hot air balloon.) The combination of ready buoyancy control and rapid deflation eliminates not only costly hangars but also the large ground crews typically required for helium airships.
The Personal Blimp can fly in ways that no other aircraft can match. For instance, no other aircraft can accomplish the seemingly straightforward task of picking off the top-most leaf from a particular tree (Helicopter downblast tosses the leaves wildly; Helium airships can't hover; Previously built hot air airship and hot air balloons are essentially impossible to steer precisely at hovering airspeeds.) In contrast, the Personal Blimp flies "low, slow, and smooth." This enables one to accomplish tasks as simple as the above-mentioned picking of leaves off the tops of trees or as complex as carrying airborne gravimetric measurement equipment (used in diamond prospecting) with far greater sensitivity and spatial resolution. Other areas of application for the Personal Blimp's unique abilities include forest canopy research, wetlands survey/management,
Initial flight tests are being conducted using a conventional gas-powered motor and conventional loud hot air balloon burners - electric motors and quiet burners will be added once initial tests are complete.
While some hot air airships exist today, these craft are extremely limited in their abilities. These limits arise because the envelopes (a.k.a. "gas bags") of these ships consist only of fabric with no rigid structural members (i.e. They are "non-rigids".) These designs rely solely upon internal air pressurization (the way a toy balloon does) to retain their shape. This lack of structural rigidity leads to both low airspeed and limited steering.
In contrast to completely non-rigid envelope designs, the Personal Blimp has a rigid, but folding, skeleton (much like an umbrella) to allow the envelope to retain its shape without requiring internal air pressurization. The Personal Blimp's rigid but foldable structure also provides hardpoints at strategic locations (e.g. on the tail) for mounting systems such as the engine and propeller. With the engine/propeller mounted on the tail, the Personal Blimp can use vectored thrust for steering. This provides far greater maneuverability, particularly for hovering, than any previous hot air airship.
Since its first flight in October, the Alberto has completed the FAA's required 10 hours of Phase I flight testing. Our work now focuses on both refining its systems and further expanding its capabilities.
Sky Yacht’s Dan Nachbar said, “the market price will be determined in large part upon how the FAA chooses to categorize our aircraft and the FAA regulations are currently in a state of flux. So it's impossible to say at this point. Our guess is that it will be between US$100,000 and US$200,000.”
Nachbar said it could be as much as two years until the company has its first product. “We have another year or so of R&D; work to do. After that, much depends up on the FAA. The best case is we could go to market right away. Worst case, it could take up to two years to get the necessary regulatory approvals.”
And with regard to the potential purchasers of the craft, Nachbar said, “it's important to remember that these are recreational vehicles. They'll be used in much the same manner as a "day sailer" sailboat. It’ll be a case of someone taking it out for a few hours, having a good time, covering it up and going home. I don't expect that anyone is going to commute to work in one of our blimps. As such, our first aircraft will be "fair weather" ships. You won't want to take them out on really windy days or into storms of any kind.”
And will this lead to flight from the backyard? “One way or another, one will need a pilot's license of some sort in order to fly the aircraft,” said Nacbar. “Precisely which pilot's license will be determined by the FAA.”
Via his lordship, Sir Red Ferret
Photos Robert Cann