The SkyLifter: Tomorrow's Airship

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By Ian McCollister | October 11, 2010 7:07 PM EST

During the early 1900s, science fiction writers predicted that airships would fill the skies of the future, having become the most popular mode of aerial transport. Today, this vision just might come true. An Australian company is currently developing a flying saucer capable of carrying whole buildings for long distances, possibly anywhere in the world. 

Called the "SkyLifter" by its creators, Jeremy Fitton and Charles Luffman, it is predicted to carry up to 150 tonnes and run on bio-diesel and solar power.  

"There is a massive need for this," said SkyLifter's investor relations partner Sam Mokhtari. "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 projects several commercial uses for the SkyLifter, including moving medical aid or portable hospitals to regions and disaster areas far from the reach of roads. The company also expects a share of the tourism market, with travelers cruising on air as they do now on ships. 

So far, the company has built "Betty", a three-metre mini-SkyLifter, and "Vikki", an 18-metre wide tethered version of the airship. They plan on constructing an unmanned prototype in the coming two to three years. They also have a 150-metre prototype dubbed "Lucy", the completion of which is expected in around six to seven years. 

Like its predecessors, the SkyLifter will fly using lighter-than-air gases filling a balloon made of "strong laminated fabric." The aircraft will move on propellers controlled by a small pod found below the main saucer-shaped blimp. It is expected to run at a top speed of 45 knots, with a maximum travel distance of 2,000 kilometres.  

As of now, the company refuses to speculate on the cost of building the SkyLifter, but Mokhtari does confess that the company has "made miracles happen in a year" despite the "slow process of building the case." Many interested parties are said to be keen on investing in the new technology. 

In the past, airships were costly modes of transportation, although Count Zeppelin was able to produce a commercially successful rigid airship in the early 20th century. The Hindenburg, which used flammable hydrogen for buoyancy, caught fire and caused the largest disaster in airship travel. Since then, airships ceased to serve as passenger craft. These days, they are most used as forms of aerial advertising.

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