Why blimps and airships died out – and how they might make a comeback

Could this be the future of air travel? Image: Aeroscraft.

Many years ago, long before the era of massive international airports, online ticketing agencies, and pesky pre-boarding security inspections, the airship was going to be the future.

Needless to say, that didn’t quite work out. Today’s skies are ruled by jumbo jets, helicopters, and the occasional drone or two. But a recent invention may help these long forgotten flying machines to reclaim their rightful place in aviation history – or at least carve out a niche.

“Airship” is a term for all motorised lighter-than-air craft, including blimps (which have inflatable air compartments) and zeppelins (which have rigid ones). They first came into existence after the development of the internal combustion engine, though a few daring aviators tried to pilot airships powered by steam engines. The first modern airship, the Zeppelin LZ1, took flight in 1900 – three years before the Wright Brothers made their famous flight.

Due to their relative cost effectiveness and longer range, airships were seen as the more attractive form of air travel in the early 20th century. They also played a key role as military aircraft, and were used for bombings in World War I. By the 1930s, luxury airships were whisking well-to-do passengers across the Atlantic Ocean, and were considered a technological marvel. They even had an influence on the urban landscape; it’s rumoured that the spire of the Empire State Building was designed to be converted into an airship dock.

But all that came crashing down with the infamous explosion that destroyed the Hindenburg on May 6, 1937. During a landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey, the hydrogen-filed craft exploded in a massive fireball. The cause of the fire is still unknown today.

It wasn’t the deadliest airship disaster – that honour goes to the British-built R101, which crashed in France in 1930 – but it was perhaps the most dramatic, and even though the majority of the Hindenburg’s passengers survived, airship travel became an instant pariah. It seems likely that airships would have been phased out anyway due to improvements in airplane technology which allowed for much shorter travel times – but the Hindenburg disaster ended the era of passenger airships virtually overnight.

The R101, moored at Cardington, Bedfordshire, 1929. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Since then, the use of airships has been extremely limited, as technological advances allowed airplanes and helicopters to dominate aviation. Though blimps played a useful surveillance role in World War II, airships today are mostly used for overhead photography at sports events, and as massive flying billboards. Today, the Van Wagner group, an airship organisation, estimates that there are only 25 blimps currently operating around the world; there are even fewer zeppelins.

But all this is about to change, if Igor Pasternak has his way. As a young man growing up in Ukraine, Pasternak’s love of airships led him to study engineering in search of the latest breakthrough in zeppelin technology. That breakthrough would ultimately come in the form of the COSH system, though only after he emigrated to California in the early 90s to escape a post-Cold War economic crash.

The COSH – Control of Static Heaviness – system works by rapidly compressing helium into storage tanks, making the airship heavier than air. While conventional airships take on air to descend, they must still dedicate most of the space in the helium envelope to actually storing the helium itself. That makes the landing process more difficult and dangerous, and means they can only land at larger landing areas much larger than the size of the airships themselves, and that come with specialized ground teams.

By contrast, the COSH system allows much more of the envelope to be emptied of helium during landing, making the airship much heavier. This could potentially allow airships to land on any flat area large enough for them to enter without the need for ground teams, increasing versatility and reducing costs.

This ability won’t do much to shake up passenger airlines, since airships will still be considerably slower. But Pasternak’s company, Worldwide Aeros Corp., is hoping its new airship will bring major changes to freight shipping.

It’s currently working on a prototype of the Aeroscraft, a new airship capable of hauling up to 66 tons, with a cruising speed of 120 knots and a range of over 5,000 miles; there are plans, too, for a larger version that can haul 250 tons. It will also be roughly three times as fuel efficient as shipping in airplanes. While it’ll still be less efficient than land or sea shipping, company representatives are hoping its landing capabilities will give it an advantage in hauling cargo to remote areas with little infrastructure.

“The Aeroscraft will be a breakthrough for cargo shipping, filling an important gap between current air shipping and land-based delivery,” says Aeros representative John Kiehle. “Since it will be so easy to land, it will also be able to provide needed assistance in disaster relief situations, where existing infrastructure is knocked out.”

And though it won’t bring major changes to passenger air travel, Kiehle says that the airship may have some limited passenger applications. “It can serve as a sort of airborne cruise ship for tourist trips, as well as potentially serving more practical passenger routes in rural areas,” he says.

An artists impression of the craft leaving its hanger. Image: Aeroscraft.

Aeroscraft has hit a few snags in the development process. Pasternak initially secured funding from the US military for an airship project using the COSH system in 2005. This was later cut, though the military continued funding the group in other projects, allowing them to move forward with a prototype.

Then, in October 2013, a section of the roof of the hangar where the partially completed Aeroscraft prototype was housed collapsed, damaging the airship beyond repair. After the crash, Pasternak told the Los Angeles Times that the destruction of the Aeroscraft, his lifelong dream, was “more than disappointing”. Aeros Corp. is currently in the process of dismantling the craft to build a new one, but no one can deny that the accident has been a major setback for the company.

And even if the testing phase goes smoothly, the Aeroscraft may still face several challenges when it enters the market. A New York Times article about Aeros cites concerns from transportation analyst Richard Aboulafa, who points out the difficulty new air vehicles have in entering the market. In addition, he notes that most of the Aeroscraft’s shipments of exotic cargo to remote locations will be one way, resulting in many empty trips, and higher operating costs.

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is the cost of fuel. Airships (or at least, the non-exploding variety) require large amounts of helium, a rare substance, which can cost upwards of US $100,000 for one trip. In 2012, rising helium costs were enough to bankrupt a tourist airship company in Northern California.

Some scientists even believe that, unlike many resources, helium could one day actually run out: partly because it’s light enough to escape the earth’s gravity well, but mostly because it’s uneconomic to harvest the stuff once it’s escaped into the atmosphere. All this raises questions about whether a form of transport dependent on it could ever, well, get off the ground.

But Pasternak and his team remain optimistic. Without any further issues, the Aeroscraft will be up for certification by the FAA in 2017. After that, it’ll be up to the market to decide if there’s a place for this new airship.  It might not bring back the glory days of transatlantic zeppelins – but it might at least prove that airships can be more than floating billboards.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.