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Solar Ship: The hybrid airship with a low-carbon twist


October 24, 2011

The Solar Ship could be used for a variety of applications - including tourism (Rendered image: Solar Ship)

The Solar Ship could be used for a variety of applications - including tourism (Rendered image: Solar Ship)

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In recent times there's been a resurgence of interest in airships for military and commercial uses as evidenced by Lockheed Martin's High Altitude Long Endurance-Demonstrator (HALE-D) and Hybrid Air Vehicles heavy-lift variant of Northrop Grumman's Long-Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV). Like HAV's design, this concept from Canadian company Solar Ship is a hybrid airship that relies on aerodynamics to help provide lift, and like the HALE-D, it would have its top surface area covered in solar cells to provide energy and minimize its carbon footprint.

Although the Solar Ship aircraft would be filled with helium, under normal circumstances they would rely on the aerodynamic lift provided by their wing shape to provide more than half the lift required to get them off the ground. Additionally, the aircraft could also fly when filled with plain old air. This means the aircraft will still be able to fly - and, more importantly, land safely - if there is damage that results in helium loss.

Solar Ship says the aircraft's electric motor can either be powered solely by the energy provided by the on board batteries, or by the solar panels covering the wing - a feat already achieved by a conventional airplane design in the form of Solar Impulse.

The company points out that such heavier-than-air airships provide numerous advantages over their lighter-than-air brethren. Firstly, no mooring infrastructure or ballast weight is required to keep the aircraft from floating away during loading or unloading, making them more practical for the remote locations in which they are designed to operate. Additionally, not relying on buoyancy for lift means the aircraft can be smaller than lighter-than-air aircraft carrying the same payload. They are also more structurally robust and more maneuverable and resistant to wind and weather conditions.

Small, medium, large

Solar Ship has designed three different concept aircraft, the smallest of which is the Caracal. This design has a claimed payload capacity of up to 750 kg (1,653 lb) for 2,500 km (1,553 miles) with a maximum speed of 120 km/h (75 mph).

Designed for remote areas where roads are a rarity and targeted at general, utility and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) markets, the Caracal can take off and land on strips as short as 50 m (164 ft) long but carrying the maximum payload requires strips of 100 m (328 ft).

Next step up in size is the mid-size Chui, which is targeted at ISR and cargo markets. Under solar power it can carry up to 2,500 kg (5,512 lb) over distances of up to 5,000 km (3,107 miles) at speeds of up to 100 km/h (62 mph). The take off and landing distances of the Chui are the same as the Caracal - 50 m (164 ft) empty and 100 m (328 ft) when fully loaded.

The third and largest Solar Ship class is the Nanuq, a dedicated cargo freighter designed to carry payloads of up to 30 tonnes (66,139 lb) for distances of up to 6,000 km (3,728 miles) at speeds of up to 120 km/h (75 mph). Empty the Nanuq can take off on strips 60 m (197 ft) long and land on strips 100 m (328 ft) long, while fully loaded requires a take off distance of 200 m (656 ft).

Solar Ship has already built and flown a 10 m (33 ft) prototype. The promotional video below provides a glimpse of the company's vision for the future in which it sees a wide range of uses for its heavier-than-air aircraft, from delivery of urgent medical supplies to remote communities and disaster relief, to environmental monitoring and military applications.

... and with several company's floating short take off hybrid airship platforms, this is definitely a space to watch over the next decade.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Every time I hear that something is designed for its \"Low Carbon Footprint\" I know it going to be an over-priced piece of junk..


Still worried about the fact it uses helium instead of hydrogen. Helium isn\'t exactly a limitless resource.

Will Sharp

If I\'m going to go lighter than air I want full buoyancy especially under no power.


6,000 km at speeds of \"up to\" 120 km/hr? That\'s a flight time of at least 50 hours. I hope the cabin is luxurious, with beds and a kitchen.

I also think there must be faster ways of delivering urgent medical supplies. Parachute from a C130, for instance.

A lot depends on price. If the small version is very much cheaper than a helicopter it may find a market.

David Evans

\"Additionally, the aircraft could also fly when filled with plain old air. This means the aircraft will still be able to fly - and, more importantly, land safely - if there is damage that results in helium loss.\" Direct quote, Do I REALLY have to point out that if you have a hole that lets out the hellium, it would let out the air too??? Brainless.


thier motto is pretty blunt about why this is so awesome. \"no roads, no fuel, no infrastructure\" . It can fly for 50 hours, with no fuel. doesn\'t need a runway to land. that\'s pretty neat. I can see this being pretty huge , especially for supplying remote communities.

it\'s a Canadian company, there\'s deffinately a market at home for them.

Honestly, just looking at that picture. how much could the materials have cost them for that prototype? looks like it would be affordable to sell as a flippin\' hobby kit. so equisite.

real footage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wjxpA68zYAM&feature=related

Eric MacAfee


Don\'t worry about it. The oil will run out before the helium, and massive new stores of the stuff have been discovered recently. Even then, no helium=/= no airships. There are plenty other viable lift gases. Hot air and it\'s more powerful sibling steam, possibly ammonia, and of course a nonflammable Nitrogen/Hydrogen mix.


Please give these people a little credit. First of all, it would take a huge hole in a Nanuk-sized airship to be of immediate danger to it- think midair collision or hitting a flying iceberg. It isn\'t even going to notice a AK-47 unloading into it or SAM passing through it. So it\'s not like it\'s in constant danger from sewing needles. Second, you don\'t know what kind of structure- of any- this will have. For all you know, it\'s a fully rigid Zeppelin. If it was semi-rigid or nonrigid, it would have balonets- air-filled balloons within the balloon- to keep it under very slight pressure so it can fly, and to compensate for altitude. The balonets are constantly inflated by fans.

Not so brainless after all, eh?

J. James

re; kellory

Continuously pumping.


@Will Sharp: \"Helium isn\'t exactly a limitless resource.\" -- Only the second most common element in the universe.

@kellory: \"if you have a hole that lets out the hellium, it would let out the air too??? Brainless.\" -- Helium is slippery and leaks easily, like hydrogen. Usually a leak is gradual. You carry reserves. But they are finite, so with a compressor, you use plain ole air, which doesn\'t run out. Smart!

@Slowburn: \"If the small version is very much cheaper than a helicopter it may find a market.\" -- There\'s some interesting market studies looking at, for instance, cross-Atlantic freight options that are cheaper than airfreight and faster than sea. It\'s a matter of cost vs time, as you infer.


I know about helium, gentlemen. It has a smaller molacule and goes right through rubber ballons, that is why the good ones are mylar. You are missing the point. if it will fly with just air, then it does not gain that much lift from the helium. the helium would simply improve it\'s range and fuel efficiency. So a small leak is not a big deal. For it to be a big deal, would require a BIG HOLE! For it to NEED a redundancy system like that it would require a big hole. pumps and compressors add to the overall wieght, ALL THE TIME, not just when needed, So that would cut down on the efficiency of the helium, if it has to be backchecked with pumps or compressors. And a BIG HOLE is just as deadly with air as with helium!



Actually, the helium is a big deal. It produces 40% more lift. And that goes up with the length exponentially, but the proportion of HTA/LTA lift stays the same, relative capacity goes up. Not to mention the fact that without the square-cube law bonus that Helium provides, a solar powered heavy lifter would be impossible, much less a 700-foot Zeppelin-sized one. What would you fill the empty space with otherwise? The structural drain alone puts it out of the realm possibility without Helium, or some other lift gas. Also, seriously, could I get some reading comprehension out of you? This thing is Solar. Powered. Saying that the Helium just \"improves it\'s range and fuel efficiency\" is therefore doubly wrong.

Furthermore, it\'s nice to see you completely ignored the facts I presented to you. What part of fans being necessary for the operation of the balonets of semirigid and nonrigid airships did you not understand? They\'re already there! You can\'t operate an airship without them unless it\'s a rigid Zeppelin! And they aren\'t even that heavy! Sometimes they don\'t even have fans at all, just scoops behind the engines! The fans are already there to regulate altitude changes and keep the envelope under slight pressure, so why not use them in a major emergency? Like, say, hitting a floating iceberg? But if they were that concerned about flying icebergs and errant helicopters- about the only two things that could bring one of these down- then they would have made it a rigid Zeppelin and avoided using inflation altogether. They didn\'t, so I really don\'t think it matters much to them.

J. James

I\'m concerned with the crosswind landing and take/off capabilities. Looks like it would be flying sideways in a stiff breeze, so if you want to land at a real airport where you can\'t point into the wind...lots of side stresses on the landing gear.

Michael Kruger

re; Michael Kruger

that problem has already been solved, just have all the tires point in direction of ground travel like a B-52. Watch this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=94AcSHpcZbI


I misunderstood you sir. I believed you meant they had added a complete back-up system, not useing what already existed. By all means , use it if it can prevent a crash, even if you overload the equiptment. The fans can be replaced, the lives can not.


My gods but there are a lot of negative people here. Let us begin addressing at least some of the statements.

Look at the pictures. The structure is obviously flexible and the top is connected via material to the bottom to hold the shape. This means it probably has multiple chambers with or without small holes between them. If there are chambers a hole even 4 or 5 feet in diameter would not cause the ship to come hurtling to the earth. I would probably cause it to slowly sink down but definitely not at a life threatening speed. Please apply a hole that size to a cargo plane and see the effects. No bullets and even most rockets would have minimal effects.

The vehicle is not mean for combat missions. Yes, I can see the military possibly using it but not for spying. There are MANY more technologies available that are both faster and smaller. If the military were to use it, it would be primarily for cargo purposes. When you consider the fuel usage of the C130H is between 2.5 and 3.5 gallons per mile, then for items that can be sent slower ways such as mail and planned resupply, this vehicle with 0 fuel cost would pay for itself with a few years.

Yes the vehicle would have problems with control in high winds, but I am pretty sure it has the ability to vary its altitude to take advantage of the winds also. Believe it or not winds at different altitudes often are blowing in different directions. Go out and watch the clouds some days when there are several layers of clouds. They move at different speeds and sometimes in directions 90 and even 180 degrees different from each other. Be sure to use a stationary object as a reference point or you might attribute it to different wind speeds. Large \"conventional\" air craft also have problems in high winds. Using parachute drops in high winds is extremely useless and even in low/\"no\" winds can result in items being spread across the countryside.

To maintain proper additional lift from the gas in the vehicle if using normal air all that would be required is some form of heating element. The vehicle is solar powered so that allows for electrical energy.

The article does not give the cost, but it does give the payload. 30 tonnes, that is 33 tons or over 1/2 the payload of a C130H. Its speed is about 1/6 the C130H speed but again for non-emergency cargo transport it is reasonable.

Overall if the price is reasonable, I would consider this an excellent vehicle for private or military cargo transport. For private I would imagine multiple attachments could be provided for various cargo types.



I agree, there\'s not a lot of knowledge among the layperson about the various advantages and disadvantages of hybrid airships. And not just ignorance, there\'s quite a lot of misplaced hostility towards these aircraft.

Your debunking of these simple myths can be taken one step further, however. In point of fact, although the solar ship isn\'t intended for combat, you imply these aircraft are militarily worthless for spying, which they\'re not. The huge surveillance airships LEMV and Blue Devil mk. ll, among others, are seeing vast growth within the military. Not only are these aircraft- hybrid airships in general- highly resistant to bullets and missiles due to their diaphanous structure, extremely low helium pressure and redundant gas chambers, but they also have airplane blood in them. They can fly like one if need be. That same ability, combined with their vastly reduced size compared to their behemoth brethren, also reduces their vulnerability to the weather.

Also, a heating element would only be able to replace 1/3 of the lift of the lost helium. It\'s unnecessary, because the ship can operate even filled with unheated air, and it\'s incredibly doubtful that even the most catastrophic accident could drain all the gas cells completely of Helium. It is, however, a viable alternative lift gas. It would make it much cheaper, but that\'s only a good idea in the distant future.

By all rights, the price should be one of it\'s greatest advantages. Almost all airships are very low-cost craft, both in initial cost and to operate. They really aren\'t very complex systems- just a gasbag and a cabin with engines. Not the infinity and a half bits that go into an airplane or helicopter.

Lastly, I think this is a very bold design. It accepts a LOT of compromises. Essentially, there are a set of disadvantages that any airship must suffer in varying degrees. How much cargo, if any, is lifted aerodynamically, the frontal drag area, the power, etcetera... They seem to have chosen the wierd combination of an extremely tiny envelope, a huge amount of the craft lifted aerodynamically, a relatively large frontal drag area, tiny lateral drag area, and a very weak, slow powerplant. I think it will work, but not as a first world heavy cargo hauler. It seems very suited towards very long endurance missions. I think the Sea Shepherds would like one.

J. James

This hybrid solar powered airship is a great achievement for a small company with limited funds and I hope they can get enough funding to produce a full size commercial passenger and cargo version. In the long term we need to develop an alternative means of air transport that is greener and more fuel efficient than normal aircraft and the only way of doing that is by developing fuel efficient airships. Regards JB (Airship & Blimp Consultant)

Trevor Hunt

Wouldn't this make a dandy, idiot- proof recreational aircraft? Crash speeds would be so low injury would be unlikely.

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