The Pelican is a new kind of airship.

It’s neither a blimp nor a plane.

It’s 230 feet long and weighs 36,000 pounds.

It’s being developed by engineering firm Aeroscraft on a $35-million contract from the Pentagon and NASA.

It doesn’t need a runway to land, which means it could deliver the 66 tons of cargo it’s expected to carry anywhere in the world.

This month, the Pelican reached several important milestones in its development.

In early January, its cockpit controls were used to move it along the ground, without the assistance of personnel.

The following week, the vehicle completed its first float hovering above the ground at its engineering hangar in Tustin, California.

The current Pelican is just a prototype. The real deal will be nearly twice as long when it’s ready for flight, some time in the next few years.

2013-01-30

This Giant, Floating Airship From NASA And The Military Gets Closer To Flight

The helium-powered Pelican will be able to carry 66 tons of cargo, and doesn’t need a runway to take off or land. It recently made an important step: getting off the ground.

In Orange County, California, a hulking, 230-foot long, 36,000-pound beast is being groomed as the future of air travel. For the next few years, all eyes in the aviation space are on the Pelican: a prototype for a revolutionary new airship—neither a blimp nor a plane—developed by engineering firm Aeros on a $35-million contract from the Pentagon and NASA.

What’s so significant about the aircraft? First, it doesn’t need a runway to land, which means it could deliver the 66 tons of cargo it’s expected to carry anywhere in the world. This could change the game for military operations (hence the investors) but also for humanitarian aid, by getting supplies to hard to reach places after a disaster or to islands lacking in infrastructure. The Aeros team imagines using it to transport massive wind turbines some day, allowing for gains in an industry that’s long been hindered by transportation difficulties. Another vision for the airship is as the Titanic of the air: a luxury cruise through the skies, letting passengers slowly absorb the sites below, while dining in style high above.

The Pelican will run on just one-third the fuel of the most common cargo planes by using helium to aid in buoyancy. As Aviation Week explains it, "compressing the helium makes the vehicle heavier than air for easier ground handling and cargo unloading. Releasing the helium displaces air inside the vehicle and makes it neutrally buoyant."

This month, the Pelican reached several important milestones in its development. In early January, its cockpit controls were used to move along the ground, without the assistance of personnel on the ground. The following week, the vehicle completed its "first float," hovering above the ground at its engineering hangar in Tustin, California.

While the Pelican is just a prototype, the real thing will be nearly twice as long when it’s ready for flight, some time in the next few years. Until these are as ubiquitous as commercial liners, we’ll just continue praying for an aisle seat.

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9 Comments

  • Greyeyedman

    Lots of military uses. Not over the battlefield but behind the lines. One of the biggest problems in the Gulf War was getting tanks into the region rapidly. The worry was that after Kuwait Sadaam would head to Saudi Arabia. Rapid deployment forces are not designed to fight massed tanks. The Air Force only has a small fleet of C-5s and C-17s. Each carries one Abrahms tank. Shippng by sea took too long. If the Iraqis would have rolled into Saudi the US might have been forced to use tactical nukes. Needless to say that would have smashed the coalition. These airships could each move one or two tanks in a matter of days. Send them a hundred miles behind the lines and they will be safe. Cheap backups for our heavy lifter fleet. Ever since the Gulf War it has been clear that rapid deployment of heavy units over long distances is a major weakness of the military. 

  • Lonnie Beerman

    The biggest negative to airship travelk is that it is not conducive to our modern "gotta have it right now" way of life.
    A long, elegant aircruise would be wonderful...if it flew over the right scenery and made occasional "ports of call" landings at key points. (BTW - don't allow Carnaval to franchise this!)
    Crago is a good application, but I have doubts about a slow moving target in hostile war zones.
    Anyway...if it comes to fruition...I'm taking an aircruise!

  • vbscript2

    Umm... I would hardly say that "all eyes" in aviation are on this. Lighter-than-air craft are nothing new. The problem is that they're huge relative to the size of their payload, thus they incur enormous amounts of drag. This means that it is impractical for them to travel at the speeds normally desired for aviation. These will never become as ubiquitous as commercial airliners because these will be traveling 40 mph while the airliners will continue to travel 550 mph. You could very likely beat this thing to your destination in your car. It might work as an alternative to a cruise ship, but not as an alternative to jet air travel where the primary concern is just getting to your destination quickly. While I could see this being a little more useful for freight where arriving a few days later wouldn't necessarily matter and it may indeed only use 1/3 of the fuel for the amount of cargo hauled, you still have to factor in the extra cost of paying the crew for a flight 10 times or more as long (which also means you'll need larger crews that can swap out in at least 3 shifts for long-distance flights.) The cost of paying the crew for the flight would likely be quite a bit higher than the cost of the fuel. It's fairly likely that this difference would mean that the cost of transport is actually higher than going by conventional aircraft. As far as military applications, the extent to which this would be practical is again limited. We already have helicopters that can land in much smaller spaces than this thing, can get there several times faster, and are much smaller and more easily able to evade enemies shooting at them. This would be a very easy target anywhere close to a war zone.

  • Rick Z

     Military and Disaster assistance are interesting possibilities.

    These airships can absorb a LOT of damage and still stay aloft.  Wonder if they are a practical alternative to running trucks through the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan -- cost,  vulnerability to attack, cargo tonnage.

    Airships were the cutting edge in the 1920's and 30's.  The US Navy had several large ones, and both were destroyed while flying in storms.  Presently, small airships are used for border/drug surveillance and aerial radar platforms.

  • sajeffe

    First of all, Fringe (alternate universe).  Second, I thought helium was becoming a scarce natural resource on Earth.  Will we be mining helium on the moon soon enough to make airships a reality?  (Or will we be buying helium from China, when they start mining it on the moon?)  At any rate, gogogo.

  • THEyardpilot

     Helium is not uncommon. It is recovered from natural gas and oil wells.