LocomoSky puts $660m into hot air

23 Apr '10
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor

The Ulyanovsk region will soon host one of Russia’s most ambitious R&D and production programs. Moscow’s LocomoSky has designed an estimated $660m lighter-than-air project aimed at manufacturing state-of-the-art, heavy-tonnage dirigibles. Between five and ten years from now the project owner believes modern ‘flying saucers’ will be routinely shipping oversized cargo to and from this country’s desolate and otherwise inaccessible areas. With the era of mass-produced dirigibles long gone, the LocomoSkyner project, alongside its American and European counterparts, expects to re-employ history at a new technological level.

Moscow-based design and engineering bureau LocomoSky is commencing a $93m Phase 1 of its large-scale project aimed at producing new gen multi-purpose dirigibles, or airships, in the Ulyanovsk region.

The firm says it is eyeing a wide variety of uses for its products, ranging from aerogeophysical survey to ultrasonic/infrared scanner monitoring and surveillance of vast terrain objects like power lines, state frontiers, industrial zones, etc. But its ‘bestselling hit’ is reportedly expected to be cargo and cargo-and-passenger aerostatic aircraft designed to carry both huge oversized loads and people.

Meet the LocomoSkyners

The entire family of the future thermo-ballasted aerostatic products, to be all generically named ‘LocomoSkyners,’ features lighter-than-air craft, each capable of shipping up to 600 tons of heavy cargo in areas with little or no transportation infrastructure. Its announced peak payload makes a LocomoSkyner five times stronger than one of the world’s largest cargo airplanes to date, Russia’s Antonov-124 ‘Ruslan.’

The prospective ‘sky giants’ have been aptly nicknamed ‘flying saucers’ for their disc-shaped bodies with an expected diameter of 50-to-260m. Two-thirds of a craft will contain helium, with the rest filled with air to be heated or cooled to move a LocomoSkyner up or down, respectively.

The streamlined shape of a new dirigible will reportedly enable it to fly at an estimated speed of 110km/h for as far as 3,000km non-stop. It is designed, above all else, to keep a craft steady and able to withstand gusts of wind when hovering over a certain spot.

All such a craft will need to land, the company says, is a more or less flat surface like ice, field or a clearing in the woods. This makes it sound like a boon to potential users compared to dirigible ‘classics’ that were nor designed to actually land and could only ‘moor’ to a special mast.

Floating into the Far East

The whole idea according to the developers is that dirigibles are the perfect vehicle to access far-flung, hard-to-reach areas of Russia’s North or Far East to support projects in energy, oil and gas, geology, forestry, woodworking, pulp and paper, industrial construction, mining or other sectors. They could also prove indispensable in heavy-duty wrecking/emergency work or eco-protection/monitoring.

Cargo and passenger versions too

LocomoSky also plans to build a cargo-and-passenger version. The enormous size of the craft could allow a capacity from 270 to 11,000 people! While a dirigible can’t compete with jets in speed, it can land on a waste ground or even in a forest. And no jet can carry as many passengers.

What it costs to make a ‘saucer’

According to LocomoSky CEO Roman Yurchenko, it is going to be a ten-year, four-stage program before LocomoSkyner production can begin in earnest.

Between now and 2013 a first operational prototype with an under 60-ton payload will be made. The current $93m investment will be used to do engineering and design studies.

$207m Phase 2, to be implemented through 2015, will be used to build larger payload craft and begin actual production.

Between 2015 and 2017 the company has plans to design and build its first 600-ton cargo carrier. This third stage has an estimated cost of $286m.

Finally, by 2020 LocomoSky reportedly intends to pony up another $72m to launch full-scale manufacture of its entire product line, including cargo-and-passenger hybrids.

As Ulyanovsk regional officials said, the region is prepared to provide a full support package for the project owner and is considering giving LocomoSkyners a priority project status.

Mr. Yurchenko said his company was in talks with Russia’s government aviation regulators over amending current federal legislation to keep it abreast of a new air transportation reality to come.

A long history of hot air

Russia’s lighter-than-air engineering has a long history of achievements followed by decades of neglect.

Dirigibles came into vogue in the 1920s-1940s. In the 30s, they were at the peak of popularity with famous Italian airship designer and pilot Umberto Nobile contributing hugely to Russia’s fledgling industry. Nobile-led R&D and production enterprise Dirizhablestroi built this country’s first heavy-duty craft, USSR B6 Osoaviakhim.

The Italian donated his technology and trained locals in design, which enabled Russian factories to not only fine-tune a passenger dirigible concept in the 1930s but also get ready for large-scale production of warfare dirigibles widely used in the WWII for air defense purposes, reconnaissance, and even bombing.

Lighter-than-air vessels passed out of use and retired soon after the war, and the famous Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst, New Jersey, made it impossible to resurrect lighter-than-air passenger or freight service.

Thermoplan déjà vu?

The LocomoSkyner project reminds some analysts of the immense and ambitious Thermoplan program that Russia unveiled in the 1980s.

It took a dozen years to build the country’s first aerostatic oversized cargo dirigible. Its disc-like body was 320m in diameter and was designed to fly up to 2,000 tons of cargo over 8,000km at a speed of 250km/h. Shipping goods by a ‘thermoplan’ was viewed as cost-effective, hypothetically putting it in the same ballpark with shipping freight by rail.

It was a cutting-edge project of its time. However, with the demise of the Soviet Union the program was scrapped as unprofitable. It has taken another 30 years for Russian designers to revisit the idea and make a first, 20kg capacity micro-model of LocomoSky’s thermo-ballasted aerostatic airship.

Looking for the perfect dirigible

Russia is not the only country to be making an effort to re-put to economic use what has been long considered history. The U.S.’ Lockheed Martin Skunk Works has been devising the P-791, a pilotless heavy-duty dirigible. Europe, too, has made certain progress of its own. In the U.K., BAE Systems joined forces a few years ago with Lindstrand Technologies and has now come close to making an unmanned aerial reconnaissance airship, GA-22, Shephard.co.uk reports.

According to media sources, Russia’s LocomoSky has no working prototype other than the above-mentioned micro-capacity model to test the concept. In spite of that Ulyanovsk Governor Sergei Morozov has reportedly assured President Medvedev that more than a dozen oil and gas companies have already expressed interest in purchasing their ‘flying saucers.’

The dream of lighter-than-air flight has been alive for centuries. While there is no question that such a craft would herald an aviation renaissance, the huge cost and vivid memories of past disaster present an enormous funding, engineering and design challenge.
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