Airships: The Comeback We've Been Waiting For?

Undecided with Matt Ferrell
20 Feb 202416:56


TLDRAirships may be making a comeback thanks to innovators applying new technology to improve these old machines. While slower than planes and less powerful than freighters, airships have environmental benefits - they can be very fuel efficient. Companies like Hybrid Air Vehicles, Lighter Than Air Research, and Flying Whales are developing new airship designs and manufacturing techniques to make them cheaper, larger, greener and safer than ever before. However, significant challenges around cost, helium supply, public perception, and unproven technology remain before they can truly compete with or replace planes and freighters.


  • 😊 Airships may offer a green middle ground between planes and freighters for transport
  • 😮 New airship designs like the Airlander 10 hybrid plane/blimp aim for commercial use by 2029
  • 😀 Electric propulsion could make airships 90% cleaner than planes
  • 🚀 Google founder is secretly developing a giant 400 foot long airship called Pathfinder 1
  • 🤔 Logistics and humanitarian aid are promising uses for modern airships
  • 👷‍♂️ New manufacturing techniques make constructing airships cheaper and safer
  • 💡 French company Flying Whales designing airships to lift huge awkward cargo like wind turbines
  • 😟 Public perception and helium supply issues could limit growth of airships
  • 💰 High costs may hinder widespread adoption of this technology
  • 🤞 First commercial passenger/cargo airships could launch between 2025-2029

Q & A

  • What are some of the benefits that airships have over other modes of transportation?

    -Compared to planes, airships are much more fuel efficient and produce fewer carbon emissions. Compared to sea freighters, airships can travel faster while still carrying heavy cargo loads.

  • What safety improvements have been made to modern airships compared to historical ones?

    -Modern airships use helium instead of hydrogen for lift. Helium is much more stable than hydrogen. Also, overall vehicle safety standards have improved significantly over the past 100 years.

  • How does the unique shape of the Airlander 10 hybrid air vehicle provide advantages?

    -The Airlander 10 generates up to half of its lift aerodynamically, like an airplane, from its shape and engines/wings. This allows it to combine desirable qualities of both aerostatic and aerodynamic lift.

  • What technology is LTA Research using to monitor the helium levels and integrity of its Pathfinder 1 airship?

    -LTA Research has mounted LIDAR systems inside the Pathfinder 1's ballonets to continuously monitor them for punctures and accurately calculate helium volume.

  • How is the manufacturing process for modern airships like the Pathfinder 1 improved over historical methods?

    -Historically, airships were built layer-by-layer with scaffolding, requiring dangerous high-altitude work. The Pathfinder 1 uses a rotating system and lasers to construct the airship more safely at ground level.

  • What is the load-exchange problem in airships and what are some proposed solutions?

    -When airships unload cargo, they can shoot upwards due to decreased weight. Proposed solutions include releasing helium, using compressors to adjust lift, or using ballast like water or sandbags.

  • What applications are companies like Flying Whales proposing for large cargo airships?

    -Flying Whales believes its LCA60T airship could transport unwieldy loads like wind turbine blades, energy towers, logs, and emergency vehicles over rough terrain.

  • What certification and timeline milestones have recent airship projects achieved?

    -The FAA certified LTA Research's Pathfinder 1 for test flights. HAV claims the first commercial Airlander 10 will roll out in 2026 and has pre-orders. Flying Whales' prototype should fly in 2025.

  • How expensive are modern airships compared to other transportation modes?

    -Modern airships are still estimated to be much more expensive than planes or ships to purchase and operate. This remains one of their biggest hurdles to widespread adoption.

  • What do you think the future prospects are for modern cargo and passenger airships?

    -They fill certain niches well, but still face challenges like high costs that likely prevent them from fully replacing planes and ships anytime soon. Hybrid models may see the most success.



😊 Introducing airships and their potential benefits

The first paragraph introduces airships, which sit between planes and freighters in speed and cargo capacity. It discusses their potential benefits - more sustainable, can carry more than planes, faster than freighters. It also asks if airships are poised for a comeback given new technology and innovations.


😮 Overview of recent airship developments

The second paragraph provides an overview of recent developments in the airship industry. It discusses the Airlander 10 hybrid plane/airship and innovations by Hybrid Air Vehicles like modular cabins. It also covers new players like LTA Research's 400ft long Pathfinder 1 airship and advances in manufacturing giant airships.


🤔 Challenges facing widespread airship adoption

The third paragraph discusses the remaining challenges for airships to overcome before mainstream adoption. This includes solving issues like the load-exchange problem, public perception post-Hindenberg, helium supply concerns, and the overall high costs of research, development, and operations.


😊 Signs of progress but unclear if airships will become mainstream

The fourth paragraph has a more optimistic tone, citing signs of progress like FAA airship certifications. But it remains uncertain if airships will move beyond niche applications. Continued innovation to reduce costs and improve public perception is needed before airships can compete with planes and freighters.




Airships, also known as lighter-than-air (LTA) vehicles, refer to aircraft that achieve lift aerostatically using large gas-filled envelopes, rather than aerodynamically with wings like planes. The video discusses the potential for modern innovations and new technology to enable a resurgence of airships for commercial transportation and shipping.

💡environmental impact

A major theme in the video is the potential environmental benefits of airships compared to other modes of transport like planes and ships. Airships require much less fuel and produce far fewer emissions to operate, giving them an advantage in terms of sustainability.


The video examines airships as a solution for challenging logistics operations like transporting heavy machinery or getting emergency vehicles into disaster zones lacking roads or runways. Their ability to access difficult terrain could fill an important niche.


Modern airships use inert helium instead of flammable hydrogen for lift. However, helium is rare, expensive, and sourced from only a few countries, creating potential supply chain issues.


New automated technologies like LIDAR systems that continuously monitor an airship's gas envelopes could improve monitoring, control, and safety compared to traditional zeppelins.


The video discusses innovations in airship manufacturing like rotating assembly frames that could enable faster, cheaper, and safer construction at scale.


Before airships can carry passengers and enter widespread commercial use, companies will need to go through lengthy and expensive safety certification processes, which poses barriers to adoption.

💡public perception

The reputation of airships is still haunted by past disasters like the Hindenburg. Overcoming negative public opinion and fear will be critical for passenger airships to gain acceptance.


High R&D, manufacturing, and operational costs could make passenger tickets and shipping rates prohibitively expensive, limiting airships' viability and mirroring issues that hindered their success historically.


The video examines multiple companies like Hybrid Air Vehicles, LTA Research, and Flying Whales that are pioneering modern airship designs and technology and could potentially transform this mode of transport.


Airships sit in a goldilocks zone between planes and freighters in speed and cargo capacity

Airships are much greener than planes or ships since they don't burn as much fuel

Fully electric airships like the Airlander 10 could produce 90% fewer emissions than other aircraft

The square-cube law means airships get better at lifting things as they get bigger

LiDAR mapping allows the Pathfinder 1 airship to monitor its ballonets and calculate helium volume

Modern manufacturing techniques like lasers and automation allow safer, cheaper airship construction

Airships can provide humanitarian aid by flying relief directly over rough terrain into disaster zones

The LCA60T airship can airlift awkward cargo like logs and wind turbine parts that helicopters cannot

The load-exchange problem must be solved before airships can make multiple trips while maintaining balance

Compressor technology to adjust lift may make load-exchange feasible in 5-10 years

Helium shortage is an issue, especially with key producer Russia limiting exports

Hydrogen could replace helium but still faces public perception and regulatory hurdles

High R&D, manufacturing, fuel and certification costs make airships expensive to develop

Recent airship prototypes clearing tests plus military and airline contracts show some progress

It's doubtful airships will fully replace planes and ships soon, but they may fill certain niches



Airships: the number one sign that you’re in an  alternate universe, or a Miyazaki movie. While  


they may seem like a bad idea, because they’re not  as fast as planes or as powerful as freighters,  


airships actually sit in a goldilocks zone in  between them. There are some interesting benefits  


that innovators are trying to tap into by applying  new technology to these old machines. Are these  


giants from a bygone era really ready to make  a comeback and impact our lives? Are Zeppelins  


the first step in the Stairway to Heaven? Or  is this just another billionaires pipe dream?


I’m Matt Ferrell … welcome to Undecided. 


This video is brought to you by  Incogni, but more on that later.


We last talked about airships or Lighter-than-air  (LTA) vehicles back in 2021. I’d say it's time to  


check in and see if there’s been any progress  or new innovations in the field. But first,  


are airships safe? Aren’t they floating hydrogen  balloons waiting to explode? Short answer:  


No. Long answer: we’ve replaced the hydrogen  with the much more stable helium. Plus,  


safety standards for all vehicles have  improved. I mean, just look at how far cars  


have come in 100 years. Or better yet, planes!  Longer answer: go check out my last video.


Then there’s this. Planes move  people and goods around super fast  


but they make up 2.5% of global  carbon emissions by themselves.


In comparison, airships are much greener. Why?  Because planes have to go fast to stay in the air,  


which necessitates burning a lot of not-very-green  fuel. In terms of sea transport, the mechanics of  


water travel mean that while freighters can  carry an awful lot. But it does take a lot of  


oomph to move them, and that oomph comes from  some of the dirtiest fuel in the world. Often,  


the ships are registered in the places with  lowest environmental standards as well.


Airships may sit in a happy middle ground. They  can carry a lot more than planes, and move a  


lot faster than freighters. And by surfing the  prevailing winds, such as those that drive the  


Gulf Stream, , they can travel at a respectable  speed without burning much fuel at all. In fact,  


a paper released in 2022 has already calculated  the greenest paths for airship travel — routes  


where they catch the best wind currents  while absorbing the most solar energy.


If you caught our last airship video  you probably remember this. I mean,  


how could you forget? That’s the Airlander 10, AKA  the Flying Butt, developed by UK-based Hybrid Air  


Vehicles (or HAV). What’s up with the weird  shape of this craft? It actually produces up  


to half of the vehicle’s lift aerodynamically,  i.e like a plane. Its four engines and auxiliary  


wings help with that. These features allow  the Airlander 10 to merge the best qualities  


of a zeppelin and a plane. It definitely  puts the ‘hybrid’ in Hybrid Air Vehicles.


Last time we talked about the Airlander, they  showcased the luxury sightseeing version of their  


cabin, complete with a bar and lounge. Now, HAV  has a modular gondola that they can configure to  


haul cargo, or up to 100 passengers. This version  of the Airlander is set to undergo flight testing  


in 2026 and enter commercial service by 2029..  Currently, the Airlander uses four diesel engines.  


This diminishes those green benefits we mentioned  a moment ago. Butt HAV and their partners at  


Collins Aerospace and the University of Nottingham  think the Airlander will be all-electric as early  


as 2030. An electric Airlander will produce  90% fewer carbon emissions than other craft,  


according to HAV. If all goes to plan, this will  make the Airlander the first large, zero-carbon,  


regional aircraft on the market. The big  news from HAV is that they’re developing  


an even bigger butt. The appropriately  named Airlander 50 will carry a whopping  


50 metric tons of freight or 200 passengers.  A fully electric version of the Airlander 50  


is on track to debut in 2033. Obviously,  the date is really floating out there.


But there are some new arrivals to the green  airship scene. Before talking about that,  


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Now let’s talk about some new arrivals to the  green airship scene. First up, Google-founder  


Sergey Brin and his California-based company,  Lighter Than Air Research (LTA Research). LTA  


Research may be new to me, but they aren’t  new to the airship game. It’s been working on  


airships since at least 2015. The team’s design  was shrouded in secrecy until late last year,  


when the Pathfinder 1 began conducting some  early test flights. These were mostly indoors  


or just a few feet above the ground, but the  U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has  


recently given the Pathfinder 1 the green light  to fly near the Palo Alto, California airport,  


and over the southern part of the nearby San  Francisco Bay. Though an impressive 400 feet  


(121.9 meters) in length, it's only half the size  of the Hindenburg. Maybe not the best thing to  


compare it to … too soon? Still, it’s longer than  three Boeing 737s, making it one of the biggest  


aircraft in our modern skies. Size matters,  especially when you consider the square-cube law.


What is that? Well, check this out.  Planes get their lift aerodynamically,  


which requires a certain amount of speed.  Airships get their lift aerostatically,  


or from the volume of gas in their balloons.  The square-cube law states that as an object  


gets bigger, its volume increases  faster than its area. For example,  


if you were to double the size of a cube, its  surface area would quadruple, while its volume  


would octuple. So as airships get bigger, they  quickly get better at lifting things. This makes  


the idea of creating jumbo-airships like the  Pathfinder 1 very appealing, at least on paper.


Back to the Pathfinder 1. LTA Research has mounted  a LiDAR system inside each of the Pathfinder’s  


ballonets. Disappointingly, ballonets are smaller  gas bags inside the airship’s rigid frame,  


not bayonets used to ward off sky pirates.  Anyway, LiDAR or (laser imaging, detection,  


and ranging) works by firing out a laser pulse  and then measuring the time for the reflected  


light to return to the receiver. Doing so allows  the LiDAR to quickly and accurately map its  


surroundings. It has a ton of applications,  from being the “eyes” of self-driving cars,  


to helping us map the bottom of the ocean and  Mars, to solar and wind farm optimization. LTA  


Research is using it to continuously monitor  the ballonets for punctures or other issues  


and accurately calculates the volume of helium.  This feedback should make the Pathfinder easier  


and safer to pilot. A combo of diesel generators  and lithium-ion batteries powers the Pathfinder,  


though there's a plan to make it totally electric,  just like the Airlander. LTA Research CEO Alan  


Weston told Popular Mechanics in an August 2023  interview that they’re also considering adding  


solar cells or hydrogen fuel cells to their  Airship. Can’t get much greener than that!


Some of the biggest advances made by LTA Research  are in the manufacturing process. Historically,  


companies would put up a mass of scaffolding  to build an airship layer by layer. This meant  


workers were performing delicate  operations at great heights,  


and injuries were common. As you can  imagine, this made building an airship  


expensive and dangerous. As for how they  used to build them, Alan Weston said:


> “In the old days, people were climbing  up 100-foot ladders.” -Alan Weston


With that in mind, LTA Research developed a  “rotisserie-chicken-style” system that rotates  


their entire airship skeleton. This allows  the air-shipwrights (which, by the way, is  


probably the coolest job title ever) to do  their thing safely on the ground. The process  


involves using lasers to measure the position  of every tube and joint on the airship. The  


lasers work in tandem with actuators to  carefully shift the hulking airship just  


a couple of millimeters at a time. LTA  Research is confident that by combining  


this tech with modern alloys they’ll be able  to construct their airships more easily and  


cheaply. Considering the price tag airships  have historically had, I hope they’re right.


Especially because of this. How are you  going to get a massive amount of emergency  


vehicles into a place like this? Natural  disasters don’t tend to spare the ports,  


roads, and runways. It's a logistics  nightmare, lives are on the line,  


and every second counts. Yet Airships like  the Pathfinder 1 can just float over any  


and all rough terrain and land where they’re  needed most. Nothing else really fills this  


humanitarian niche (at least at a large shipping  scale), so this application is particularly cool.


Speaking of humanitarian applications, let's  talk about another fresh face on the scene,  


the French startup Flying Whales, and their  LCA60T. Not exactly a catchy name — but when  


is French ever catchy to an Englishman?  In any case, this company is designing a  


literal flying hospital called Flying Care.  The idea is to use vertical landing features  


to bring doctors right to the heart of a  problem. Now that’s a housecall! While this  


idea is very neat, it wasn’t the reason why  Flying Whales designed the LCA60T. This was.


You see, the French Forestry Service has  a problem. It's difficult to move people  


and cargo through their mountains and forests  without disturbing them. Why not fly over them in  


an airship? But say there’s no landing zone, even  for a big balloon. Perhaps the cargo’s too big for  


the LCA60T’s 96-meter-long hold. (Nope, still not  a catchy name.) In a scenario like that, though,  


the airship can deploy “transport underslings” to  reel in smaller objects and airlift bigger ones.


And this got the Flying Whales thinking… If the  LCA60T can tackle big, unwieldy cargo like logs,  


it can probably handle other big, unwieldy things.  I could have probably phrased that better … but  


I’m talking about energy towers and wind turbine  parts. Physically transferring monolith-like  


construction pieces to their installation site is  a huge undertaking. It requires years of careful  


planning and logistics. Currently, helicopters  handle the most awkward parts of the journey. But,  


based on its benchmark tests, Flying Whales claims  that its airship can haul three times the payload  


of modern helicopters, with 15 times less carbon  emissions — all while being cheaper to produce.


This sounds very promising, so why aren’t  the skies full of airships already? Well,  


there’s still some science and  engineering riddles we’re going  


to have to solve before airships make  the jump from steampunk to solarpunk.


Arguably the most pressing issue is the  load-exchange problem. Airships have enough  


lift to haul heavy cargo, but what happens when  you drop that cargo off? How do you stop the  


airship from shooting upward like a runaway party  balloon? The easiest way is to adjust your lift  


by releasing enough gas to zero out the cargo  you just dropped. This would be acceptable with  


hydrogen, but belching out expensive and rare  helium just isn’t going to fly, financially  


speaking. Especially if you’re making multiple  trips per day, as a commercial plane does.


Therefore, the simplest way to handle  the weight-exchange problem is by using  


ballast. Let’s say your airship  wants to pick up 5 tons of lumber,  


so it sets off with 5 tons of water  already onboard. As you pick up lumber,  


you release the water. Hot air balloons  already do this with sand bags. Easy,  


right? Well, only theoretically. Dynamically  accounting for every pound in real time is  


tricky. A miscalculation or sudden gust could  lead to a very expensive and dangerous mistake.


Here’s a very cool possible solution. Use a  compressor to squash that helium closer together,  


and voila, the airship has less lift.  This technique is actually already in  


use for underwater remotely operated  vehicles (or ROVs). Understandably,  


it’s a lot trickier to pull off in  the sky. And air compressors with  


these abilities are just too heavy for  most airships right now. In a 2022 video,  


Bloomberg asked Flying Whales CEO Sebastien Bougon  about compressor tech, and he said he thinks this  


technology will be viable sometime in the next 5  to 10 years. I hope he’s right. Nobody wants to  


add yet another name to the list of revolutionary  tech that will forever be “5 to 10 years away.”


There’s also the problem of public perception.  When most people hear the word “airship,” chances  


are the Hindenburg disaster is immediately at  the forefront of their minds. Will airships,  


especially commercial passenger airships, be  able to overcome this negative public image?  


Or will the ghost of the Hindenburg forever haunt  the tech’s legacy? That’s an important question,  


and we won’t really have an answer until we  actually have a few more airships flying around.


The use of helium should make most people feel  safer but helium has its own issues. While helium  


is the second most abundant gas in the universe,  it's quite hard to come by on Earth. It’s mostly  


found deep under our crust which makes it hard  to extract. And it’s primarily found in just four  


countries, making it vulnerable to supply chain  or market hiccups. One of the chief producers  


of helium is Russia, and the ongoing war in  Ukraine has seen Russia curtail its sales of  


the precious gas. Think about that the next time  you want to do that squeaky voice gag! We could  


always switch back to hydrogen, we know a lot  more about it and have better safety procedures  


now. Hydrogen is less dense than helium and a lot  cheaper, making it less of a bummer to release for  


load-exchange reasons. But the United States has  banned its use in military aircraft since 1922,  


following another, pre-hindenburg zeppelin  disaster. That ban is still on the books. And even  


if the ban were lifted tomorrow, hydrogen balloons  might still scare away potential passengers.


At the end of the day, though, the biggest  hurdle facing airships remains the same ol’  


for just about everything: their high cost. R&D  is expensive. Establishing new manufacturing  


techniques and fabricating the airship  is expensive. Airship pilots are rare;  


there's only 17 certified, full-time airship  pilots in the entire United States. Then  


there’s the fuel. Filling even a small airship  (think Goodyear Blimp) with enough helium for  


just one trip is estimated to cost up to  $100,000. And even if it all goes to plan,  


you still have to prove it's  safe to the FAA. Here too,  


the song remains the same. Certification  is a long and expensive process.


Nose to tail, the whole thing is costly,  and this is going to be reflected in the  


ticket prices. Back during their heyday,  a transatlantic zeppelin trip was two days  


faster than a cruise and about 5.5 times  more expensive. And they’re still pricey  


today. Granted, there’s no data yet on  modern passenger or cargo ticket pricing,  


but there sure is for luxury skycruising.  OceanSky Cruises, a Swedish airship service,  


claims it will be flying luxury tours of the  North Pole aboard the Airlander 10 starting  


in 2026. The price? A mere $200,000 USD. For  totally unrelated reasons, you can donate to  


my Patreon here. Jokes aside, the high prices  may have done more to kill the zeppelins than  


the safety issues in the past. Would this  be another case of history repeating itself?


I promise it’s not all pies in the  sky. Despite all these challenges,  


airships aren’t _that _ far away, even if only  in the history books. Remember, the FAA recently  


certified the Pathfinder 1. Sure, it’s just  for test flights. But every airship certified  


helps set a safety standard for other airship  companies to follow. It normalizes the process,  


opening the door for more vessels in the  future. Meanwhile, HAV boasts that the  


first commercial Airlander 10 will roll off  the assembly line in 2026. Some airlines,  


like Hibernian and Mel Air, have already  pre-ordered their Airlanders. And the United  


States’ Department of Defense (DoD) awarded  HAV a contract last December. They're thinking  


about using the Airlander 10 in a maritime  logistics support role. So it might not be  


too long before we see naval or coastguard LTA  craft again. And though Flying Whales is still  


in what it calls the “de-risking phase,” its  prototype should take flight in 2025. It seems  


like we’re going to be seeing these first deployed  in market segments that can foot the hefty bill.


Will these not-so-antiquated airships be our  future, or or has the ship sailed on airships?  


They really do look like they’ll fill their  niches, but it’s highly doubtful that they’ll  


ever fully replace planes and freighters.  There are still significant challenges for  


airships to overcome before that’s even  a possibility. Will companies like HAV,  


LTA Research, and Flying Whales be able to  handle these challenges in a way that makes  


financial sense? Will Airships ever get over  their Hindenburg-related image problem? Or  


will it all go down like a lead balloon?  That all remains to be seen. A sky filled  


with green airships might not be too far off — at  least as long as they can keep the prices down.


Instead of rambling on, what do you  think? Jump into the comments and let  


me know. And be sure to check out my follow  up podcast Still TBD where we'll be discussing  


some of your feedback. Thanks to all of my  patrons, who get ad free versions of every  


video. If you’d like to support the channel  and get in on early videos, ad free versions,  


check out the link in the description.  I’ll see you in the next one.