The Aeroscraft airship, with its minimal fuel consumption, vertical take-off and landing capabilities and point-to-point delivery is promising to revolutionize aviation. This radical new vehicle platform created by the Aeros Corporation in California is now entering its final stages of development and in this interview the company's founder and CEO, Igor Pasternak, talks to Gizmag about how different the Aeroscraft will be from anything else we have seen before.
Igor Pasternak, who founded Worldwide Aeros in Ukraine before moving the firm to California in 1994, is confident that the new dirigible Aeroscraft airship will get U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) approval next year and revolutionize air travel forever.
“We are working with the FAA around the requirements for the vehicle,’’ Pasternak says. “With understanding the requirements and complying with the requirements, we are already there. Now the next step is to build a full size vehicle and go through FAA testing and certification.”
At this stage, Aeros has built an Aeroscraft prototype. At 79 meters, or 260 feet, long, it is smaller than the final model. While the company initially told us that the prototype is not designed to carry a payload, Pasternak says that it can indeed be used for freight – but the payload capability is less than the 66 tons that the planned larger craft will be designed to carry when it enters commercial operation.
“The prototype is a sub-scale of the full size of the vehicle,’’ Pasternak says. “It’s 50 per cent of the length of the full-scale vehicle. This vehicle has all the systems and all the structure from the big one. It’s just built on a smaller scale. It’s designed as an operational payload vehicle. It carries some proportion of payload but the most important part of this vehicle is it has a rigid structure built from the same elements as the 66 ton vehicle, it has the landing gear from the 66 ton vehicle, it has the flight control software of the 66 ton vehicle, it has all the elements.”
The prototype vehicle is just weeks off from being completed. When it’s finished, it will demonstrate the vertical take-off and landing and point to point delivery features of the platform. Pasternak says this makes it perfect for the commercial market.
“The aircraft is the vehicle that allows customers to make money. The advantage is you don’t need ground infrastructure. You can fly anywhere, you can land anywhere, you don’t need any ballast, you don’t need any ground crew.
“You can carry a lot of weight and at the same time, fly long distances. When you look at hybrid airships, they require a runway. The aircraft doesn’t need this, not a ground crew, not a runway, not the ballast.
“It’s a complete transportation system. It does not need infrastructure."
Potentially, Pasternak believes, these advantages could make the platform more cost effective than road or rail.
“If you’re looking at freeways and rail, you always have the interface between freeways and rail," he says. "You don’t have this interface here. You can land it anywhere and you can take off anywhere.
“If you are looking at the economics, you can never compete with a train or a truck, they are still pretty inexpensive but the moment when you start looking at delivering 66 tons and three full trucks, in some scenarios, it can be more cost effective than trucks,’’
And the potential applications?
“It can deliver food to Africa. It’s a vehicle that can bring the infrastructure to build factories in the middle of the continent where there are no roads or ports. It can be used for disaster relief or for delivery of fresh flowers
“And it’s not just the money, it’s also the time. In some cases, for example, wind turbines might take for them delivery of three weeks. Now we can deliver it in one week.
The military presents another obvious application according to Pasternak.
In terms of a business model, Aeros doesn't intend to sell the craft but will instead lease it out.
“We are selling the service, we will become the operators on a lease basis,’’ he says. “We would provide the crew, would provide the maintenance, all the requirements and the service for the customer. Our prices will be competitive with logistics companies, not just for prices but delivery time as well.”
The commercial models will have a cruising speed of 110 knots over a range of 3000 nautical miles.
“It is the speed that the market and customers need,’’ he says.
One of the keys to the new platform is its buoyancy management system. This allows the weight of the vehicle to be adjusted to suit conditions and operational needs. It is completely different from a "blimp" or something like the Hindenburg which needed a hitching post. With the Aeroscraft, there is a gas envelope above a freight chamber which reduces the buoyancy until the craft is 50 feet above the ground. Then you land it as you would a helicopter.
“The concept of the operation is absolutely new. When it comes in for a landing, say 100 feet or 50 feet and it touches the ground, at this moment you become heavier than air,’’ he says.
“From the structure stand point, all of us are familiar with the Hindenburg and Zeppelin designs, continues Pasternak. “This is different. We built a space frame that sits inside of the vehicle and around the frame we built a rigid cell. The function of the rigid cell is to have it work with the aerodynamic laws. It’s a very simple approach.
“It also allows us to build vehicles very rapidly. When you’re talking about the production of vehicles, you need the ability to build number of them in a short term and with the frames you can do this.”
The other notable aspect of the buoyancy system is that it uses helium. “We use helium these days,’’ Pasternak says. “Hydrogen is nice but it’s going to take a while to convince people to use hydrogen.”
It’s also much more fuel efficient than aircraft, again saving the customer costs. “It’s uses a diesel engine which allows you to achieve 3000 nautical miles. It’s very efficient on fuel consumption and it’s propeller driven,’’ he says. “It’s about 30 per cent more fuel efficient when compared with modern state-of –the-art aeroplanes ... and it requires normal commercial diesel fuel, not aviation grade fuel.”
Pasternak says it took the company, which employs over 100 people, four years to develop the technology which includes a smart automotive digital flight control system, enhanced envelope fabric and a robotic mooring system.
Indeed, infrastructure is kept to such a minimum that it’s designed for a single pilot.
“With the flight control system for this vehicle, it’s an innovative approach. It’s an intuitive approach. The pilot is not the captain of the ship. With the system interface, he is more the supervisor.
“It’s probably the largest aeroplane in history that requires a single pilot.”
Pasternak maintains that the great advantage of the craft is that it goes to where the customer is, wherever that may be.
“We deliver the Aeroscraft to where we find the customer. It will not go to an airport, that’s the last place where you would see this vehicle. You land it where customer needs it so that the customer isn’t thinking about delivery to the airport or the road.”