As dawn breaks over Silicon Valley, the world takes its first look at Pathfinder 1, a prototype electric airship that its creator LTA Research hopes will usher in a new era in climate-friendly air travel, and its funders , will accelerate Google’s humanitarian work. Co-founder Sergey Brin.Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
The airship – its snow-white steampunk profile visible from the busy 101 highway – has taken drone technology like fly-by-wire controls, electric motors and lidar sensing, and supersized them, longer than three Boeing 737s. which are potentially capable of carrying. Tons of goods for many hundreds of miles.
“It’s been 10 years filled with blood, sweat and tears,” LTA CEO Alan Weston told TechCrunch on the eve of the unveiling. “Now we have to show that it can fly reliably in real-world conditions. And we are going to do that.”
A series of increasingly ambitious flight tests lie ahead before Pathfinder 1 is transported to Akron, Ohio, where LTA Research is planning an even larger airplane, Pathfinder 3. The company hopes to eventually produce a family of airplanes to provide disaster relief where roads and airports have been damaged, as well as zero-carbon passenger transportation.
However, for the next year, this massive airship is set to become a Silicon Valley landmark as its innovative materials and systems are systematically placed within shouting distance of companies like Google, Meta and Amazon.
“I’m excited about the potential to lay the foundation for not just building one airship, but many airships,” Weston said. “The innovations and technologies we are going to showcase have the potential to lay the foundation for a new industry.”
The largest aircraft in almost a century
At 124.5 meters long, Pathfinder 1 dwarfs current Goodyear airplanes and even the giant Stratolaunch aircraft designed to launch orbital rockets.
It is the largest aircraft to take to the skies since the giant Hindenburg airship of the 1930s. Although similar in appearance to that ill-fated airplane and using a Zeppelin-supplied passenger gondola, Pathfinder 1 was built from the ground up using mostly new materials and technologies.
LTA’s airship uses stable helium instead of flammable hydrogen as lifting gas, which is housed in 13 giant rip-stop nylon cells and monitored by lidar laser systems. A rigid framework of 10,000 carbon-fibre reinforced tubes and 3,000 titanium hubs forms a protective skeleton around the gas cells, surrounded by a lightweight synthetic Tedlar skin.
Twelve electric motors powered by diesel generators and batteries enable vertical take-off and landing. They can propel Pathfinder 1 at up to 65 knots (75 mph), although its initial flights will be at much lower speeds.
This morning, the airplane was moving quietly from its WW2-era hangar at NASA’s Moffett Field on ropes held by dozens of the company’s engineers, technicians and ground crew.
The entire operation took place under the cover of darkness, not because LTA has anything to hide, but because the flight test program of the airship begins with the first rays of the sun in the morning. The first lesson its engineers hope to learn is how Pathfinder 1’s nearly one million cubic feet of helium and weather-resistant polymer skin will react to the warming effects of the California sunshine.
“We have sophisticated methodology that allows us to replicate real-world conditions using a static test stand,” said Jillian Hilinski, senior mechanical engineer at LTA. “However, dynamic on-ship flight tests provide the best data on the health and efficiency of the airship.”
test, test, test again
In early September, the FAA issued a special certificate of airworthiness for Pathfinder 1, allowing test flights in and around Moffett Field and nearby Palo Alto Airport, and over the southern part of San Francisco Bay.
Those tests will initially take place a few feet above the ground, with the airship attached to a mobile tripod mast. This would be followed by simple maneuvers around Moffett Field, before a series of flights out and over the bay.
“There are so many benefits of getting out on the water,” Weston said. “First of all, when you come out of Moffett Field, the air over the Gulf is smoother than anywhere else. It is very important. And there’s not much in the way of traffic on the surface, so that’s a big plus, too.
Safety is uppermost in Weston’s mind as he works to reintroduce rigid airships to the skies of North America and eventually the world. The first 50 flights of Pathfinder 1, covered by FAA certification, will not allow flying higher than 1,500 feet, and the airship will be required to use two pilots instead of a single pilot as designed.
He said, “I can count the number of companies in a lighter-than-air space and if one has a serious problem we all have a lot to lose.” Weston says LTA is working closely with the FAA to ensure there is a safe and sensible path to full certification of everything the company makes.
“The last maiden flight of this type of airplane was the Graf Zeppelin II in 1938,” he said during the interview. “The FAA wasn’t even around then.”
back to the future
In a world of eVTOL air-taxis, electric aviation startups and hydrogen planes, Weston acknowledges that airships are likely only a partial solution. “I can’t see airplanes replacing airplanes,” he said. “But I see a place for airplanes to be part of a transportation architecture that reduces the carbon footprint of air travel.”
Another important area could be responding to natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes. Sergei Brin also funds a non-profit called Global Support and Development, which aims to deliver humanitarian aid within the first 24 to 96 hours of a disaster.
Brin founded GSD in 2018 after using his own superyacht to deploy doctors to the scene of a cyclone in the South Pacific. The nonprofit has since partnered with nonprofit YachtAid Global, and now also has its own purpose-built ship, the MV Dawn, which can rapidly transport dozens of doctors and aid workers along with life-saving supplies. Can take.
While Pathfinder 1 can carry about four tons of cargo in addition to its crew, water ballast, and fuel, future manned airships will require much larger capabilities. They also likely will use zero-carbon technologies, such as hydrogen fuel cells for power, Hilinski said. This will involve a long, slow effort to validate new technologies and demonstrate to the FAA and paying customers that a new generation of super-large airplanes can overcome the generally excellent safety and reliability records of today’s commercial jets. Can match.
Weston said, “What excites me about what we’ve done so far is that we’ve shown ourselves, and we hope to show the rest of the world, that we are capable in size and productivity.” Can scale.” “And I am confident in our ability to move forward again in the future.”
The FAA’s experimental certificate for Pathfinder 1 expires in September 2024.