Airship Renaissance

Modern designs focus on autonomy, longevity and payload capacity

For more about modern airships, read the accompanying article, "Airships for the 21st Century."

Transcript of video:

If you happened to be in Caribou, Maine recently, you may have seen something like this. Engineers from Science Applications International Corp. were conducting flight tests of the Skybus 80K, an unmanned airship designed to conduct surveillance missions at altitudes of close to 2 miles up.

The Skybus 80K is just one of a number of commercial and military airships now under development. Many people still think of airships as quaint relics of a bygone era: After all, they predate airplanes by a good century and a half.  

But in the last several years, experts have been looking to revive the technology for applications where conventional ground and air transport just won’t do. The new vehicles are designed to lift heavy payloads, remain aloft for weeks, months, or even years at a time, and fly without pilots. And they do all that while expending far less fuel than a conventional airplane.

Airships like this remotely piloted Skybus could be ideal for monitoring sites where improvised explosive devices or rocket launchers may be deployed. They could also be used scan for missiles and other airborne threats.

Some space experts even think robotic airships could be used to explore Mars and other planets.

So the next time you see a blimp in the sky, remember, you’re not just looking at the past, but also getting a glimpse of the future.

For IEEE Spectrum, I’m Jean Kumagai.