Zeppelins have come a long way since the early 1900s.

Specifically, they are significantly faster, lighter, and largely fire-free compared to their modern airplane counterparts. They are also astoundingly safe. Even before the Hindenburg disaster, the airship casualty rate was half that of modern airplanes. The industry crashed with the Hindenburg, and these days seeing zeppelins is rare outside of advertisements and sporting events. Today zeppelins are simply a novelty, but they have surprisingly practical applications. Solar power could be the modern update that grants airships the comeback they deserve.

Innovations to zeppelins

Paul von Hindenburg, who shares his name with the airship, Hindenburg.

Recently Varialift Airships, a UK based aeronautical company, announced it had begun building a new prototype of its solar zeppelin design. They plan to address all the major problems that plague zeppelins as an airframe. The aircraft will be all-aluminum, wind-resistant, and entirely leak-free during normal use. Zeppelins are inherently slower than airplanes, averaging about double the travel time, but they have a distinct financial and practical appeal.

Varialift is specifically targeting the cargo market, where airships have historically been underused. Varialift airships will operate at approximately 10% of the cost of airplanes making expenses comparable with trucks or railways. Additionally, vertical takeoff and landing will allow access to hard to reach areas with no runways or additional infrastructure required. Their largest zeppelins will be capable of transporting 250 tonnes of cargo, nearly double the payload of a 747. Beyond their incredible weight capacity, Varialift airships also have no immediate size capacity, opening the door for outsize industry transport. 

The Varialift prototype will be finished in 9 months, but there are already solar airships in use today. The Yuanmeng, translated as “dream”, is currently China’s largest airship and uses solar power to run its electronics while airborne. It has been flying since 2015, and officials say it is capable of sustained flight for an incredible 6 months straight. The airship is currently used for communication and observation purposes.

The future for the solar zeppelin

Though it may take years for companies to leverage solar zeppelins for commercial use, the prospect is certainly enticing. If Varialift and its contemporaries succeed the zeppelin could reprise the futuristic sky cruiser image it held nearly a century ago. The idea of massive balloons running on solar to transport cargo is outlandish at best, but it is much more feasible than one might think.

Brian D'Souza

Brian is a writer at The Rising and a student in the pre-engineering program at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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