March 4, 2013
New type of aircraft could service remote worksites
If a transplanted Ukrainian now heading a California aerospace company has his way, his Aeroscraft airship will usher in a new era of dirigible transport.
The 79-metre-long prototype airship, which can land and take off vertically, is undergoing extensive testing at a U.S. Marine Corps air station, south of Los Angeles.
“The market has cried out for this,” said Igor Pasternak, founder and CEO of Aeros Corporation.
“This vehicle doesn’t need roads, a runway, ground crews. It can go to where the projects are.”
An engineer, Pasternak said the Aeroscraft is ideally suited to service development in remote areas that lack infrastructure.
The prototype took four years to build, with much of the $35 million in financing coming from NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense.
Both are interested in the Aeroscraft’s ability to eventually deliver more cargo than airplanes to disaster zones or military bases.
The first of five planned vehicles will be ready in about three years, each one costing roughly $60 million to $70 million to build.
The full-size airships will be about double the length of the prototype and have a 66-ton payload, Pasternak said.
The range of the diesel-fuelled Aeroscraft will be about 3,000 nautical miles.
It flies at about 208 kilometres per hour, similar to a largo cargo helicopter.
Pasternak claims it can fly 365 days a year.
But, the prototype is being tested under high wind conditions and extreme weather.
There are concerns that because of the large surface area, strong winds will affect the airship.
Still, Pasternak points to the Aeroscraft’s ability to haul heavy machinery to a worksite without having to disassemble the equipment.
He cited the example of a remote mining or gas project, where a couple of years of infrastructure work are necessary before the project can start.
Using the Aeroscraft would cut prep time because machinery arrives fully-assembled.
And, with its ability to land or hover almost anywhere, previously inaccessible spots become accessible.
Pasternak also said transport costs will be one-third of what it costs for airplane transport.
It will cost about 12 to 18 cents to move one ton, one mile, he said.
The Aeroscraft operates like a submarine, releasing air to rise and drawing in air to descend.
It has a gas envelope above a freight chamber, which changes buoyancy when the craft is about 15 metres above the ground.
It lands like a helicopter, becoming heavier than air.
Its internal ballast control system allows it to offload cargo without using ballast.
It just needs one pilot, Pasternak said.
The exterior skin is made of Mylar while the interior’s rigid structure is made of ultra-light carbon fibre and aluminum.
Inside, helium-filled balloons - lighter than air and not flammable - provide the lift.
Recently, worldwide concerns about a helium shortage have been bubbling, but Pasternak said sourcing helium isn’t a problem.
Adequate sources exist, he said.
Future Aeroscraft could use hydrogen, which would increase the payload to 72 tons.
“But, we have to convince the public it’s safe,” he said.
The doomed Hindenburg, which crashed in 1937, relied on hydrogen.
The operations manager and chief pilot for a construction company that does a lot of roadbuilding and mine work in Northern B.C., Alberta and Yukon, thinks the Aeroscraft shows promise, but he wondered how it will perform in adverse weather and if costs will increase once working airships are actually carrying cargo.
“Are they taking a shot in the dark?” asked J.J. Fellers of Fort St. John-headquartered Arctic Construction.
He also questioned how the ballast system will operate during unloading.
“This sounds good, but you have to trade weight for weight,” he said.
His company, which most often works in remote regions, is familiar with large helicopters like the M1-26 Utair, a Russian-built craft that can carry up to 22 tons, one third of the Aeroscraft.
Fellers recalled a job at the Galore Creek mine in northern B.C.
About $2.5 million was spent moving equipment to the site.
It cost about $30,000 per hour to rent the huge chopper.
Compounding freight costs was that large pieces of equipment had to be disassembled.
That would not be necessary with the Aeroscraft.
While there are cargo planes that can carry as much or more weight as the Aeroscraft, it’s usually smaller planes that are used in remote areas because large planes need a lot of ground space to land.
The L382G Hercules can accommodate oversize cargo, carry up to 23 tons and land on ice or gravel airstrips.
Pasternak is optimistic the Aeroscraft will be spotted in Canada.
After it’s certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration sometime this year, the Aeroscraft can fly in Canada, he said.
“We’re in the process of being approved,” he added.
The airships will be leased, not sold, with Aeroscraft as the operator.
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