Aircraft Technology, Integration and Operations

Sergey Brin’s zeppelin: The biggest, greenest aircraft in the world

The Lighter-Than-Air Systems Technical Committee stimulates development of knowledge related to airships and aerostats for use in a host of applications from transportation to surveillance.

For three years rumors swirled: What could Google billionaire Sergey Brin possibly be building — in secret and far from public view — inside an old Navy blimp hangar at Moffett Field in California? The answer came in October: Brin’s company, LTA Research, revealed Pathfinder 1, an all-composite, extremely green, extremely large 123 meters long by 20 meters in diameter new-age zeppelin the size of four Goodyear blimps.

Alan Weston, CEO of LTA Research, said that the craft portends “the rebirth of an era when giant lighter-than-air vehicles circled the world” and “a new future for aviation, travel, [and] freight that uses less energy, is quieter, lower cost, [and has] a much smaller carbon footprint than any other form of transportation.” Since Pathfinder 1 needs no airport or runway to land, its initial mission will be delivering humanitarian aid and disaster relief to regions of the world inaccessible to conventional aircraft.

Made of girders digitally printed from carbon fiber, Pathfinder 1 was assembled with unprecedented speed using a patented jig (“the roller coaster”) that allowed the airframe to be rotated on its horizontal axis during construction on the floor. All previous zeppelins have been built by suspending components from the ceiling and then joining them using ladders and scaffolding — a slow, labor-intensive and more dangerous process.

Pathfinder 1 will lift 28 tons, cruise at 60 knots and have a range in excess of 2,500 nautical miles. For propulsion, Weston said in September that LTA was exploring a variety of options, including solar-electric, hybrid and hydrogen fuel cells, any combination of which would produce “very small to zero carbon emissions.”

The company plans to manufacture larger craft. In March, it negotiated a deal to buy the Akron (Ohio) Airdock — 360 meters long, 99 meters wide, 64 meters tall — in which the U.S. Navy built its airplane-carrying airships Akron and Macon of the 1930s.

United Kingdom-based Hybrid Air Vehicles in May unveiled a 100-seat cabin configuration for its Airlander 10 that HAV said was suited to such intercity trips as Liverpool to Belfast or Seattle to Vancouver. Assuming hybrid-electric propulsion, the craft would operate with 90% fewer carbon emissions than conventional aircraft in the same role. In June, HAV announced that Collins Aerospace of North Carolina had begun fabrication of a 500-kilowatt electric motor and said in July that ILC Dover of Delaware would fabricate the hull. The company and the U.S. Navy’s Naval Postgraduate School in August signed a cooperative research and development agreement to explore what impact hybrid aircraft might have on Navy and Marine Corps logistics capability. Also this year, investment firm Global Emerging Markets made a $200 million commitment to help HAV eventually go public.

AIAA and Explorers’ Club member Don Hartsell’s quixotic dream of an around-the-world airship race drew closer to reality when he secured the support of French dirigible-maker Flying Whales and of Air Liquide, among the largest suppliers of helium. His World Sky Race involving seven Airship Industries Skyships and other dirigibles, would start from London in September 2023 and end in Paris in May 2024.

Sergey Brin’s zeppelin: The biggest, greenest aircraft in the world