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.