Good Evening and welcome to the 3DB. It has been a long week, so it seems, and like you I am glad it’s Friday. Today I want to revisit a subject we talked about in August of 2013 – the SkyTug. The Lockheed concept was called the P-791 and was developed by the Skunk Works for an Army contract which was awarded to Northrop Grumman and Hybrid Air Vehicles. CLICK HERE for the 2013 blog article.
There is continued interest in this concept and while researching another article I came across a number of articles you may find interesting. The first article comes from Reuters:
Lockheed Martin Corp expects to reach an agreement next year with a launch customer for a giant new hybrid airship that would revolutionize the way oil and mining companies haul equipment to the Arctic and other remote areas without roads.
The initial version of the airship, filled mostly with helium, would carry 20 tons of cargo, but could easily be scaled to roughly the size of a football field with 500 tons of capacity, Robert Boyd, an engineer with Lockheed’s Skunk Works R&D house, told Reuters in a rare media visit to the sprawling facility some 60 miles from Los Angeles.
Boyd, who started working on airships in 1991, said he was optimistic about finding an initial customer for the manned prototype airship, also known as P-791, next year, nearly a decade after the airship’s first flight in 2006.
“We’re months away, not days, not years,” Boyd told Reuters. “By 2015, we’ll be out there on the development track … By 2018, we should see these in operation.”
Lockheed is the Pentagon’s No. 1 supplier, but it is targeting a commercial market for the slow-moving airships that have four hovercraft-like landing pads and can set down on nearly any flat surface, including sand, snow and even water.
“It’s not the most sexy of airplanes, but it does its job,” Boyd said.
Initial buyers would likely include small airlines or other firms that ship cargo to remote areas for oil, gas or mining companies, he said. He said the aircraft were also very safe because they are filled with helium, which does not burn.
He said climate change might boost demand with warmer conditions cutting the time that ice roads could be used.
The airships could help countries like Indonesia develop remote territories that lack ports, and could prove useful in providing relief supplies during natural disasters.
U.S. military officials had also expressed interest, he said, but would likely contract for cargo transportation services rather than buying the airships themselves.
Eventually, Lockheed could sell hundreds of the smaller airships and thousands of the larger ones, Boyd said.
He said the airships would likely cost tens of millions of dollars, making their cost comparable to what operators now pay to truck cargo via seasonal ice roads, but about five to 10 times cheaper than much cheaper than transport via helicopters.
In a different article I found a bit more historical information and I was surprised to find that FedEx was involved in bringing this concept forward.
In recent years, major aerospace companies such as BAE Systems, Boeing and EADS have all expressed interest in lighter-than-air and hybrid air vehicles, for ISR and remote heavy airlift applications. But apart from HAV, only Lockheed Martin (LM) has progressed beyond the drawing board.
In the 1990s, prompted by Fred Smith of Federal Express, the renowned Skunk Works in Palmdale, California, studied concepts for a huge cargo-carrying hybrid named the Aerocraft.
After a design review, the Skunk Works team led by Bruce Wright sought outside expertise. A system design and engineering contract was awarded to Airship Technologies Ltd., led by Roger Munk. But Fred Smith lost interest in the Aerocraft when he realized that it could not meet his cost targets. Bruce Wright retired–and later came to the UK to work as a consultant to Munk.
Meanwhile, LM briefed the Aerocraft to the Pentagon. It had obvious military potential. At Palmdale, the team now led by Dr. Robert Boyd continued work on hybrids, in typical Skunk Works secrecy. The U.S. Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) eventually launched the Walrus project to develop a hybrid airship capable of transporting up to 1,000 tons over intercontinental distances. The vision was to carry an entire Army brigade “from the fort to the fight.”
On Jan. 31, 2006, the Skunk Works flew a demonstrator designated P791 at Palmdale (pictured). The P791 was about 125 feet long–much larger than the SkyKitten hybrid demonstrator that Munk’s next company, ATG, had flown six years earlier.
The first flight of the P791 was unannounced but was observed by outsiders. No further flights were acknowledged by the Skunk Works. Earlier this year, however, Boyd told Airship magazine that the P791 flew six times. The flights were not without incident, although LM claimed that all the flight test objectives were successfully completed. DARPA’s Walrus project was subsequently canceled.
There were some differences, but also some similarities, between the P791 and the SkyCat hybrid designs that ATG was developing. In 2007, LM took legal action against Roger Munk, ATG and SkyCat Ltd. for infringement of patents. The claims against ATG and SkyCat were dismissed and the claim against Munk was settled in 2008 before trial, with each side ordered to pay its own costs.
LM competed against Northrop Grumman for the U.S. Army’s LEMV contract–and lost. At Palmdale, Bob Boyd’s team refocused on commercial applications. Details of the P791 were eventually made public in 2010. In March 2011, Aviation Capital Enterprises (ACE) of Canada announced an exclusive agreement with LM to develop a large hybrid airship to help the developers of natural resources to reach remote areas. Nothing more has been said since (by either party) about this relationship.
Earlier this year, Boyd made a presentation entitled “The Road Not Needed” to the Solve For X forum sponsored by Google. He said: “This technology is ready to go…the issue is ‘growing’ the world of transportation to expect such a big change.”
There are a number of companies in the market now and it will be interesting to see at what level this concept comes in to being. Will it be by commercial companies or will government be the only one that can afford to pay for such a concept. Stand-by, and stay tuned, to see how this trend will affect our future.
I have a few videos below for your viewing pleasure and until next week – take care, be safe/fly safe, and keep family and friends close. Life is short……….
January 13, 2015