The world’s largest aircraft breaks cover in Silicon Valley
By Mark Harris, https://techcrunch.com/
Photo Credit: LTA Research
Sergey Brin-backed airship startup LTA Research begins flight testing today
As dawn breaks over Silicon Valley, the world is getting its first look at Pathfinder 1, a prototype electric airship that its maker LTA Research hopes will kickstart a new era in climate-friendly air travel, and accelerate the humanitarian work of its funder, Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
The airship — its snow-white steampunk profile visible from the busy 101 highway — has taken drone technology such as fly-by-wire controls, electric motors and lidar sensing, and supersized them to something longer than three Boeing 737s, potentially able to carry tons of cargo over many hundreds of miles.
“It’s been 10 years of blood, sweat and tears,” LTA CEO Alan Weston told TechCrunch on the eve of the unveiling. “Now we must show that this can reliably fly in real-world conditions. And we’re going to do that.”
A series of increasingly ambitious flight tests lie ahead, before Pathfinder 1 is moved to Akron, Ohio, where LTA Research is planning an even larger airship, the Pathfinder 3. The company eventually hopes to produce a family of airships to provide disaster relief where roads and airports are damaged, as well as zero-carbon passenger transportation.
For the next year however, the gigantic airship looks set to become a Silicon Valley landmark as its novel materials and systems are methodically put through their paces within shouting distance of companies like Google, Meta and Amazon. “I’m excited about the potential of not building just one airship, but laying the foundation for many airships to be built,” said Weston. “The innovations and the technologies that we’re about to demonstrate have the potential to lay the foundation for a new industry.”
The biggest aircraft in almost a century
Pathfinder 1 during outdoor flight operations testing November 8 at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California. Image Credits: LTA Research.
At 124.5 meters long, Pathfinder 1 dwarfs the current Goodyear airships and even the massive Stratolaunch plane designed to launch orbital rockets. It’s the largest aircraft to take to the skies since the gargantuan Hindenburg airship of the 1930s. Although similar in appearance to that ill-fated airship, and using a passenger gondola supplied by Zeppelin, the Pathfinder 1 was mostly built from the ground up using new materials and technologies.
LTA’s airship uses stable helium rather than flammable hydrogen as a lifting gas, held in 13 giant rip-stop nylon cells and monitored by lidar laser systems. A rigid framework of 10,000 carbon-fiber reinforced tubes and 3,000 titanium hubs form 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 the Pathfinder 1 at up to 65 knots (75 mph), although its initial flights will be at much lower speeds.
This morning, the airship floated silently from its WW2-era hangar at NASA’s Moffett Field at walking pace, steered by ropes held by dozens of the company’s engineers, technicians and ground crew.
The whole operation occurred under the cover of darkness, not because LTA has something to hide but because the airship’s flight test program begins with the first rays of the morning sun. The first lesson its engineers hope to learn is how Pathfinder 1’s approximately one million cubic feet of helium and weather resistant polymer skin will respond to the warming effect of Californian sunshine.
“We have sophisticated methodology that allows us to replicate real-world conditions using static test stands,” said Jillian Hilenski, senior mechanical engineer at LTA. “However, dynamic on-ship flight tests provide the best data on the health and efficiency of the airship.”
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