Based on the title of this article, any reader of sound mind might promptly conclude the writer is a lunatic. But wait, I beseech you! Hear me out, at least for a few paragraphs! After all, Salon did make an “all call” for Things You Made.
A brief synopsis first: I taught elementary school for twenty years, and did a lot of science with kids. I majored in biology, and I’ve been inventing things since I was a kid; I also happen to have two valid patents and trademarks. One of the patents involves the contraption that I hope will demonstrate that the Wright Brothers might have made a wrong turn. Well, ok, I would not honestly call theirs a “wrong turn” for the time those boys took to the air, but I am about to argue that their fundamental method of flight is wrong for today’s world.
I am talking about the difference between heavier-than-air flight (henceforth “HTA”) and lighter-than-air flight (henceforth “LTA”). The former is the flight you make when you hop a plane to another city, or several cities, or wherever you’re off to; LTA typically conjures up that notorious image of the Hindenburg ablaze, the German rigid frame dirigible (roughly meaning “steerable-balloon”) that made the news on early tv. Dirigibles in their day, like blimps--their stubby, bulbous cousins--were usually filled with helium (the Hindenburg being an exception, filled with flammable hydrogen). I prefer to use the more general term “airship,” since it sounds more dignified.
But let’s cut to the basics. Flying HTA is something like trying to fly a rock; LTA is more like flying a balloon. The former uses the vast majority of its energy to keep itself aloft, fighting the eternal pull of gravity. HTA craft have improved greatly in recent years in regards to efficiency, due to new shapes, better understanding of aerodynamics, and miraculous lightweight, strong materials, not to mention better engine technology. It’s hard to directly measure efficiency given the variables involved, but in the end you are still spending a lot of energy to hold that rock aloft.
LTA craft basically float in the air, like a balloon at a party. The problem with flying them is they take so much volume to hold the equivalent of that rock aloft. Roughly speaking, you need 15 cubic feet of helium to float one pound of rock, or anything else, off the ground.
But consider a fish in an aquarium. At least the faster ones look quite streamlined, and it’s easy to visualize how they slide through the water (which is about 700 times denser, and a whole lot heavier, than air). Most fish have a “gas bladder” that enables them to adjust their overall density, taking gas from the blood or putting it back, which enables them to stay about the same density as water. This is what allows them to swim about with little or no energy “staying afloat.” Some fish, like sharks, are slightly heavier than water and thus must keep swimming, or else sink.
Airships typically have a similar ability to change density, using “ballonets” or internal air bladders. They need to do this as external temperature or pressure changes, to adjust to neutral buoyancy, so they remain afloat in the air.
Consider: What if you were able to take a kid’s balloon and change it’s shape, so that it were more streamlined, say something like a fish? Would it slide better though the air, when you pushed it in one direction?
Yes, it would. And the more you streamline it, the easier it will slip through the air. This is in contrast to the traditional blimps you see at football games, wafting about in large gymnasiums, or sometimes cruising a coastline. Those bulbous shapes were designed to give the lift needed for heavy motors, various equipment, and sometimes people, along with whatever support systems are needed for the people.
What has changed greatly in the last decade or two, however, are materials that can be used in LTA vehicles. We now have lighter envelopes, batteries, motors, and materials for structural supports, such as carbon fiber; we have barriers for better helium retention; reinforceable foam, for lightweight components; and better, lighter electronics generally. The latter in particular is huge in airship development, for it means we can jettison even the pilot beforehand, and fly remotely. This also eliminates the paraphernalia needed to keep a person up there, such as water, food, and accessories for bodily functions. It also means we can fly airships long distances with very little, or relatively little, energy. We are not flying a rock, but floating a streamlined balloon and slipping it through the air.
Such a vehicle can carry cameras, sensors of all sorts, mapping equipment, hydrometers to look for water (or wholly mammoths under the ice, for example); they can carry instruments to measure local gravity, find minerals, meteorites, or radioactive materials; they can find people lost in the wilderness or crossing borders when they aren’t supposed to; they can quickly examine crime scenes, highway wrecks, fires, and present prompt aerial shots of your typical nightly news; they can monitor farm fields or rangelands, study wildlife, venture into wilderness areas, study glaciers, marshlands, or coastlines; they can find heat losses with infrared cameras; they can serve as first responders in natural emergencies; they can carry medicine, food, and water in roadless or frozen areas; and… well, you get the idea.
LTAs, properly designed, could carry small supplies over small distances; they could later advance to carrying medium cargo over medium distances; and progress from there to hauling large cargo over large distances. They can travel straight from point A to point B, without diverting to countless terminals called airports; they can land in a field or on water, or even a temporarily closed road. For that matter, they needn’t land, but float above trees or rooftops and lower cargo by ropes or wires. And indeed, in the twenties and thirties, large airships did carry passengers and cargo, routinely and successfully, from continent to continent, though that seems to be a lesser known fact of history.
Environmental tourism might well become a billion dollar industry. I haven’t mentioned communications, but these ships, tethered, could pop up like mushrooms, serving as cell towers in areas that are hard to reach. They could come down in minutes if bad weather were coming. If someone worked out a handful of technical issues, airships could serve as low level satellites, ideal for communication, at a small fraction of the cost of satellites (which often fail on or shortly after takeoff). Indeed, low altitude airships (by that I mean around 60,000 feet, above the jet streams) are the Holy Grail of many folks working in this area.
I should perhaps note here that there is substantial evidence that the Hindenburg disaster (where 36 people were killed, a tragedy for sure, though negligible to the number of kids who die each day from lack of clean water), was not caused by hydrogen, but rather the covering that the envelope was coated with. Perhaps more importantly, helium is a limited resource, trapped in limited pockets underground, like natural gas or petroleum. Hydrogen, on the other hand, is renewable, has 10% more lift than helium, and is roughly a third the cost of it. Plus we’ve learned a lot about handling helium safely since 1937.
I got many of these ideas in 1995, after reading The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, by that writer supreme, John McPhee. The day after reading that amazing little book, I was out in the pond on our property in southeast Idaho, experimenting with a wooden yardstick I stole from my son, to see for myself if, indeed, things might “glide up” laterally. We all know things glide down: birds, seeds, leaves, paper, parachutes, and hanggliders, for example. But can things really glide up, as this book was suggesting, and the Aereon Company in New Jersey was trying to accomplish? McPhee’s book covers the topic well, and I highly recommend reading it, even if only for McPhee’s exemplary research and writing style (which is why I was reading it!).
Long story short: 5,000 tries and two years later, literally, I learned that you can indeed make a shape that glides up, as the Aereon Corporation had tried valiantly to accomplish. The creation I came up with is called an Aquaglider, an upward-gliding pool toy, which you can Google easily enough, or even find in Toys R Us or a number of other stores.
In any event, it turned out that, another five or six hundred tries later(!), and working with helium to build a functioning model airship, that with the new batteries, motors, and remote control equipment now available, it was more feasible to work with cigar shapes than the fish-like Aquaglider. I also realized that airship envelopes could be held taut by internal helium pressure. In recent years, I teamed up with other individuals, more knowledgeable than I in many areas, such as electronics, video transmission, reinforced foam, carbon fiber, electronics, control systems, and so on, all of which greatly accelerated the development of my streamlined airships. I call these contraptions Hyperblimps and you can also find them online, watch videos of and from them, and read more about them.
So there are two things I’ve made, and offer this essay in response to Salon’s recent call for “Things You’ve Made.” Maybe you’ll be using one of these inventions in the not-so distant future. (Hey, I can’t help myself! Google “Aquaglider” while there’s still some summer left, with this one caveat: Dads, let your kids use the dang thing too!).
And, finally, an obligatory P.S., and thank you to those who have helped get the Hyperblimp to where it is today, and a footnote that takes us back to the title of this essay: We recently won a Charles Lindbergh Award to study right whales off Argentina, with biologists from the University of Utah. So even if the Wright Brothers DIDN’T make a wrong turn, we believe we have the right aerial vehicle to study the right whales. Hopefully we’ll prove it before long!