World’s largest aircraft, Google co-founder’s Pathfinder 1 tests flight

Aiming to make airships viable in aviation, Google co-founder Sergey Brin's aviation startup has completed the first flying test of its Pathfinder-1 airship. The 408.5-feet-long (124.5 meters) airship prototype by Lighter Than Air Research (LTA) features modern-day technologies such as fly-by-wire controls, electric motors, and lidar sensing. 

With its massive airships, the firm aims to provide a zero-carbon transportation solution suitable for humanitarian missions and cargo transport. The firm uses "modern technology and advances in manufacturing to make them safer, stronger, and more efficient than ever before," said the LTA website. 

Last month, the firm secured a special airworthiness certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that allowed outdoor flight testing at Moffett Field, a combined civil-military airfield in Silicon Valley. 

LTA Research sees its airships playing an essential role in humanitarian operations, transporting supplies and persons to locations inaccessible by road. Brin's non-profit organization, Global Support and Development, has a track record of carrying out such missions by sea. With the Pathfinder airships, it may expand its activities to the sky.

Modern offering 

The Pathfinder 1 has a distinct design sets it apart from other airships. This helium-filled airship is made of 96 welded titanium hubs and 288 carbon fiber-reinforced polymer tubes, which makes it light enough to employ non-flammable helium as a lifting gas, a considerably safer alternative to the hydrogen used in early airships.

The Pathfinder 1 is capable of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) and can attain speeds of up to 75 miles (120 kilometers) per hour thanks to twelve electric motors and four fin rudders. The airship has a tough laminated Tedlar outer shell that houses 13 ripstop nylon helium canisters, each with a lidar system to monitor gas levels.

The airship also has a hybrid propulsion system that combines two 150-kilowatt diesel generators with 24 batteries to power its electric motors. While the present model utilizes helium, LTA Research anticipates hydrogen being used in future iterations to power fuel cells, turbogenerators, and perhaps as an extra lifting gas.

Testing phase

The Pathfinder 1 is a single-pilot aircraft with dual controls and a second pilot on board for early flight testing. The gondola (an external equipment or passenger compartment), constructed by Germany's Zeppelin corporation, can seat up to 14 people. However, only critical staff will be aboard during testing.

The FAA certificate allows LTA to conduct 50 flights of Pathfinder 1 at altitudes no higher than 1,500 feet and with two pilots on board. According to Techcrunch, Pathfinder 1 will be tied to a moveable tripod mast for the initial testing, which will take place just a few feet above the ground. Then, simple maneuvers around Moffett Field will be performed, followed by flights out and over the San Francisco Bay. 

Following lengthy flight testing in California, the Pathfinder 1 will go to the former Goodyear Airdock airship hangar in Akron, Ohio, which LTA Research purchased for future manufacture. The firm is already in the works to develop Pathfinder 3, a bigger 590-feet(180-meter) long airship. 

While Pathfinder 1 can transport around four tonnes of goods in addition to its crew, water ballast, and fuel, future humanitarian airships will require significantly more extensive capabilities; the firm is looking to employ zero-carbon technology like hydrogen fuel cells for electricity. 

Such a process will entail a lengthy, difficult struggle to validate the new technology and demonstrate to the FAA and paying customers that a new generation of super-large airships can match today's commercial planes' generally good safety and reliability record, according to Jillian Hilenski, a senior mechanical engineer at LTA, as reported by Techcrunch. 

Originally published on Interesting Engineering : Original article

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