Flying Inflatable Saucer Could Carry Entire Buildings

A new airship that is part flying saucer and part blimp could soon carry entire buildings and offer airgoers a fresh way to travel and explore.

Called the SkyLifter and currently in development by an Australian company of the same name, the concept airship relies on a lighter-than-air chamber for its buoyancy, just like a blimp or a balloon. But rather than a standard spherical, cigar, or "bomb" profile for its air-filled envelope, or aerostat, the SkyLifter has a flat, disk shape.

This innovative, flying saucer-esque configuration does not catch the wind like a sail as much as some other airship designs, and in effect gives the craft greater directional control even in gusty conditions, its designers said.

As a bonus, its discus shape means the SkyLifter does not have a "front" or "back" and can therefore cruise to a destination or maneuver in tight quarters regardless of its orientation.

The flying saucer-shaped aerostat also doubles as a stabilizing parachute when the SkyLifter is vertically setting down cargo. This payload is suspended well below the hovering aerostat for balance, somewhat like a light weight on the end of a balloon string.

So-called Voith Schneider propellers placed around the aerostat and the flight deck pod above the payload module provide both thrust and steering. Solar panels placed across the top of the aerostat and biodiesel engines power the aircraft.

As drawn up by its engineers, the SkyLifter should have an airspeed of about 50 miles (80 kilometers) per hour, giving it a range of about 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) in a day, an expected operational period. The dirigible could be set up for low, ground-swooping or for higher atmospheric flight.

The aerostat itself spans some 492 feet (150 meter) in diameter, or about twice the length of a double-decker, wide-body Airbus A380 airplane. Given this setup, SkyLifter's designers said it can carry more than seven times the payload of today's heavy cargo helicopters.

That rounds out to a payload of 165 tons (150 tonnes), enough to transport good-sized, prefabricated buildings, for example, into a rural area. In this way, the SkyLifter could serve as an airship for disaster relief, floating in tons of supplies, or a mobile hospital capable of airlifting out 1,200 people in a single run.

Regular, non-emergency construction purposes, of course, could also be well-met by such a craft, and recreational possibilities abound. (The company has already hinted at a luxury "SkyPalace" module that could stand in for oceanliners.)

For investor reasons, Skylifter is mum when it comes to costs, but the company plans to offer leasing and licensing for its vehicles similar to standard helicopter business agreements.

SkyLifter continues ramping up toward a full-scale production model. A miniature remote-controlled prototype dubbed Betty with 10 foot- (three meter-) diameter aerostat has carried a payload of a about one pound (500 grams) in the lab. A tethered outdoor version called Vikki with a saucer span of 60 feet (18 meter) is being put through its paces.

Next up is a 75 foot (23 meter) aerostat-craft – Nikki – that would leave its moorings for test flights, and in several years, a complete airship nicknamed Lucy might just usher in the era of the SkyLifter.

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