Skylifter: heavy duty flying saucer re-thinks lighter than air transport


October 8, 2010

The Skylifter airship concept

The Skylifter airship concept

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For decades, fans of airships have been hoping for a large-scale revival of the majestic floating aircraft. Every few years, lighter than air flying concepts come along to raise those hopes, such as Northrop Grumman’s Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, Skyhook’s JHL-40, and DARPA’s Walrus, which led to the current Aeroscraft ML866 project. Now there's another unique contender to the throw into the mix – Australia’s Skylifter. If it ever makes it to the skies, however, it’s sure to be the source of some bogus UFO sightings.


Skylifter is a dirigible gas balloon system which, as its name implies, is intended for transporting cargo too heavy, bulky or fragile for conventional aircraft – its carrying capacity is rated at 150 tonnes (165 US tons). While the company’s immediate plans are for traditional payloads, down the road it would be interested in developing prefabricated buildings that Skylifter could drop into hard-to-reach locations, or luxury pod units that would take up to 80 passengers at a time on air cruises.


The aircraft would consist of three main sections. Floating at the top would be the symmetrical discus aerostat, which is a fancy way of saying “saucer-shaped balloon.” It would be permanently filled with lighter-than-air gas. Hanging on suspension lines below it would be the cylindrical control pod, with the two-pilot flight deck mounted on the bottom. Cargo would hang from cables below that.


Biodiesel engines, augmented by solar panels on top of the balloon, would generate electricity to power three propellers mounted on the sides of the control pod. The propellers would be cycloidal, meaning that the blades would be arranged horizontally. The main advantage of such propellers would be that they could be rapidly controlled via a helicopter-style collective – this would definitely come in handy for the precise maneuvering involved in the collecting and depositing of cargo.

The airship would have an estimated cruising air speed of 45 knots (83 km/h or 52mph), and a range of at least 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles).


As with other lighter-than-air vehicles, Skylifter’s main bragging points are its lifting abilities, the fact that it could stay aloft for days at a time, and its relatively low fuel usage and CO2 emissions (as compared to an airplane or helicopter).

Unlike traditional blimp-shaped airships, Skylifter would have no front or rear end, meaning that keeping it turned into the wind would not be an issue, and it could easily spin 360 degrees. It also wouldn’t be limited to landing at airfields with masts, which is the case with blimps. Instead, the pod and balloon would be moored to the ground, and the balloon could be lowered down close to the pod to minimize the effects of wind – the designers estimate that it could withstand gusts of up to 148 km/h (92 mph).

So, will we ever see a Skylifter in real life? Well, the designers have already built two proof-of-concept models of the lift system, and plan to build at least two more that are bigger and better. In the meantime, here’s hoping.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Sky lifter A brilliant idea, could be the greatest thing to happen for tourists.

What i cant figure out is why hang the stuff so far down from the ship itself?.

Cheers kiwi

John M

Old idea but would do wounder for the transport of heavey goods at a very low cost. Why didn\'t they do this 30 years ago??

Facebook User

This is similar in concept to something I saw as a flying model about 20-30 years ago. It was when the \"Spruce Goose\" was on display/storage in Long Beach, CA next to the Queen Mary liner. It was an RC model that flew inside the dome structure housing the \'Goose\'. There was a display with pictures/drawings showing planned uses as a heavy lift airship. The basic concept stated in the display was that the lifting gas was to make the ship weight-neutral so all engine thrust could be used for control and payload lift. That avoided the problem of the old rigid airships having to dump ballast or valve gas to control lift. It is quite an intriguing concept and I wish them luck with \"Skylifter\".

History Nut

The concept of this form of air transportation provides potential for shipping, cruise and strategic transportation.

This device could give the U.S. Merchant Marines a new tool to carry out its duties and missions in heavy cargo transports as well as introduce a new form of luxury cruising. The illustrations already show the possible applications this transport device can offer.

Imagine this device could be used in the Haitian earthquake rescue relief efforts or the tsunami in the south pacfic.


It\'s a nice idea but why a disc? It seems like a fairly inefficient shape for holding a lifting gas.

Facebook User

The propellers are puzzling. While machinery like this works well as a wind turbine (omnidirectional you see), I can\'t help but wonder how they work in a thrust application. For moving the airship in one direction, I would guess that two propellors provide forward (or rearward) thrust while the third acts as a rudder. Does no shroud mean that the blades/arifoils articulate? Or could it possibly be that this Photoshop balloon is filled with hot air?

Bruce H. Anderson

I\'d say the shape and he distance to \"payload\" are both to do with stability. Hard to move something like that up and down quickly with that amount of area to displace air = smoother ride. Same with the \"payload\" side to side down there equates to lots of side to side up top. Pretty hard to wiggle around all in all I\'d imagine. When you\'re moving you\'ll have pressure systems above and below as well which would help things move along smoothly. They\'d sure as heck look impressive :)

Craig Jennings

Oh.... if they have varying payloads does that mean they\'ll have to take on/leave off ballast as well if they have a fairly fixed buoyancy? That could be a large amount of ballast at those lofty weighty!

Craig Jennings

From what I have read Helium is in limited supply on planet Earth. By the time these aerostats are perfected will there be enough He to affordably inflate them?

Robert Bianco

Crap. I\'m not gonna be burned alive like the Hindenburg accident. This is why this kind of technology never took off. Not practical, dangerous and slow.

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