LOCKHEED Martin Corp expects to reach an agreement next year with a launch customer for a giant new hybrid airship that would revolutionise the way oil and mining companies haul equipment to the Arctic and other remote areas without roads.
The initial version of the airship, filled mostly with helium, will carry 20 tonnes of cargo, but could easily be scaled to roughly the size of a football field with 500 tonnes of capacity, Robert Boyd, an engineer with Lockheed’s Skunk Works R&D house, told Reuters in a rare media visit to the sprawling facility some 60 miles from Los Angeles.
Boyd, who started working on airships in 1991, said he was optimistic about finding an initial customer for the manned prototype airship, also known as P-791, next year, nearly a decade after the airship’s first flight in 2006.
“We’re months away, not days, not years,” Boyd said. “By 2015, we’ll be out there on the development track ... By 2018, we should see these in operation.”
Lockheed is the Pentagon’s No 1 supplier, but it is targeting a commercial market for the slow-moving airships that have four hovercraft-like landing pads and can set down on nearly any flat surface, including sand, snow and even water.
“It’s not the sexiest of airplanes, but it does its job,” Boyd said.
Initial buyers would likely include small airlines or other firms that ship cargo to remote areas for oil, gas or mining companies, he said, adding the aircraft were also very safe because they are filled with helium, which does not burn.
He said climate change might boost demand with warmer conditions cutting the time that ice roads could be used.