Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends
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dimanche 23 mai 2004

Hokan Colting founded his Canadian company, 21st Century Airships Inc., in 1988 to build lighter-than-air crafts, such as balloons and airships. He recently gave an interview to New Scientist. In this conversation, he speaks about his latest spherical airship with which he reached a record altitude of 6,234 meters in June 2003. He says that his spherical airships are safe, reliable and need less space to land than cigar-shaped ones. He envisions that his airships will soon be used to carry wireless communications and for surveillance missions. He also wants to circle the world in a non-stop flight as early as next year. Finally, he says that his airships will be used for sightseeing rides, such as photo safaris in Africa.

Here are some selected excerpts from this interview.

Q: What has changed [since the Hindenburg_disaster]?
A: The Hindenburg used hydrogen as a lifting gas, which is explosive. We use helium. It doesn't ignite, explode or burn. We also have much better fabrics: they had ones you could tear by hand, ours are ten times stronger than steel at the same weight. And our engines are better -- theirs needed 24-hour supervision, ours are reliable.
Q: But why a sphere?
A: It has so many advantages. For example, a cigar-shaped airship is tied down by the nose and has to be able to swivel 360 degrees as the wind changes, so if the airship is 60 metres long, you need a 120-metre diameter circle to park it.
Hokan Colting's spherical airship in the sky Here is a photography of the Hokan Colting SPS 62.5 spherical airship in the sky (Credit: 21st Century Airships Inc.).
Q: What's the highest you've flown in it?
A: We took it up to 6234 metres (20,450 feet), which is the world record for airships. Traditional airships can only go up to about 1540 metres. After that, we descended, and sat in the cabin with the door open and had lunch.

You can find the full list of records established by Hokan Colting on this page.

Besides giving technical details on the engines and the way helium expands at high altitudes, Colkins predicts some of the future usages for his airships.

High-altitude airships will be used for wireless telecommunications. For a signal to go from the ground to a geostationary satellite and down again, it's a round trip of 70,000 kilometres. Even at the speed of light, that still creates a delay. Or else you put up all these telephone towers everywhere.
The US government wants to have 11 or 12 airships around its borders to detect everything from incoming missiles to illegal immigrants. They'll want more for communications, broadcast, surveillance and so on. Currently they use satellites and robot planes but the planes can't stay in station. They want something that just sits there.
Q: What else can they do?
A: We have some artists' drawings of a sightseeing airship. It'll have a glass bottom, and there'll be lots of space. It's not like a sightseeing helicopter where you're strapped into your seat. You can walk up to the bar and get a drink, look at the sights at a leisurely pace. You would leave from, say, Niagara Falls and fly up over the falls for an hour. We have had companies in Africa contacting us.
Future airship for sightseeing rides This is a rendering of a future airship for sightseeing rides (Credit: 21st Century Airships Inc.). You can find more details on this page.

For more information about dirigibles, here are three pages to visit at Wikipedia on airships, zeppelins and on the Hindenburg disaster.

Sources: Alison Motluk, New Scientist dated May 22, 2004; and various websites

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