Drone Dirigibles… No Really: Dirigibles!

If you’re hanging on to images of the Hindenburg, it’s time to let those go. …

No matter how hard I would try to talk about drone dirigibles with clients, I could literally hear their eyes roll back in their heads. I guess compared to quadcopters racing around dropping packages on people’s heads, a safe, dependable solution that has been called the “Swiss army knife” of air vehicles just doesn’t sound sexy.

True, dirigibles aren’t designed to win the sprints.  They are the tortoise in the fable, however.  

If you’re hanging on to images of the Hindenburg, it’s time to let those go. They haven’t been flying hydrogen bags for a while now, and when was the last time you heard of a dirigible crash?  Most dirigibles have safety features that make a fast, hard landing such as a crash nearly impossible. 


High Altitude(HA) drone airships can be used to replace satellites for communications. Signals don’t have to penetrate the atmosphere or travel as far, and that means less lag time. If something goes wrong with the drone airship it can land for repairs or be retrofitted with new equipment, which would be a costly endeavor for satellites if it could be done at all. Facebook and Google both have invested in HA fixed wing drones outfitted with solar power that are capable of staying in the air for long periods of time, but the problem with a fixed wing remains the same closer to the ground as it does up high: it moves fairly quickly compared to things that hover. Google also had been working on Hot Air Balloons to provide networking to remote areas of the planet.

Big Movers

Currently, if you need to manufacture a product you deal with a lot of shipping. The raw goods have to be shipped to either a refinery or a foundry or to wherever the manufacturing plant is. Then they leave that process and travel farther into the supply chain. Product moves from the interior of a country via infrastructure to the ports, and you guessed it: more shipping.  One of the pluses of dirigibles is they can carry a lot of weight over long distances for very little cost. Again, they won’t win any speed races, but they will show up with larger payloads and they don’t require much by way of infrastructure to get the job done. In a country where torrential rainfall can wash out roads and bridges, for example, dirigibles can fly above the damage.  Got a problem with pirates raiding freight ships? Dirigibles fly high over them. Same for getting humanitarian relief to areas experiencing natural disasters, or to remote places that have traditionally been difficult to provide support, like the Antarctic.

Um… About That Border Wall and Surveillance

The Cato Institute in one of its reports said border security using drones was not feasible. That report was based on using Predator drones, which is misleading for a number of reasons and is not the only option. The report also did not engage any level of imagination to use existing technologies, or to modify, outfit, or change configurations of the Predator for applications in a peacetime role. In any case, an airship’s flexibility lends itself perfectly to this sort of mission. It can be outfitted with any number of sensors, including multispectral image sensors, microphones, sonar, LIDAR, radar, and many others. Not only can they spot something or someone coming to the border from miles away, but track it, report its location, and keep tracking it even if it goes over the border. Whether it’s a low flying smuggler or a desert owl, it can be monitored. With some AI, image and facial recognition software could be employed, which means we’d know who or what was at the border, and even if a person made it across the border, with facial recognition software, it would be hard to stay in the country for long without ending up on a local police or federal monitor at some point.

The other great thing about dirigibles is that they can be tethered–you can have them in remote locations, with a ground station below and all the power they need. If the power goes out, or you want them to be more self-sufficient, you can use thin-film solar for the outer skin of the craft.

China developed the Yuanmeng, which is the largest airship at 75 meters in length, and from a military standpoint it can be used to monitor ground and/or sea activity. It can also be equipped with radar capable of monitoring all air traffic; there have even been suggestions that it could have quantum radar capable of detecting stealth planes and other vehicles.

These dirigibles can be used in other stationary surveillance situations, like stadiums, large outdoor events, prisons, high traffic areas, search and rescue, patrolling long stretches of property, or pipelines. They can monitor rivers, lakes, damns, and ports. Small low altitude versions are relatively cheap, do not require much power (if any solar is used), and are easy to maintain or upgrade. And small hobbyist dirigibles are capable of achieving high altitudes, so if you were monitoring your acreage on a farm, you could do that 24/7 with the right  payload and  tethering with a power source.


The Chinese are working on a civilian version of the Yuanmeng for air travel. I imagine this would be cheaper than traditional air travel. It would take longer and would be an alternative to buses for a country that has notorious infrastructure problems during the rainy season. It would likely be similar to a train carrying both passengers and commercial freight. 

A Platform

Because dirigibles are capable of slow circling and staying over an area, they would make excellent platforms for other devices to land on, recharge, and continue their missions.  There are some plans for using a dirigible as a platform for swarming drones. You may have seen the video of swarms being launch from a larger jet plane. That makes them essentially a single mission deployment, whereas a dirigible platform would make for multiple swarming missions. This could translate to a civilian applications, like mail delivery or surveying.

Downsides and Takeaways

Speed is the one major downside. Dirigibles are not going to be winning a Famous Company’s Pizza Delivery contract so the customer doesn’t wait longer than 30 minutes. However, they are a stable platform for moving freight and can carry more than their rotor and fixed wing cousins, so they might be a solution for the Last Mile, especially for items weighing over a pound. They also make fairly large targets for the anti-drone crowd. Obviously, there are not as many manufacturers of drone dirigibles and the sizes vary from small (about a meter) to very large (tens of meters). Dirigibles may become a more flexible and cheaper security solution for both home and commercial use.

If speed is not a factor, airships might be the right solution for data gathering in your business. Or a multifaceted approach might be your answer–traditional drones for just the speed work, dirigibles for constant surveillance and heavy lifting missions. Much to consider if you are thinking about adding drones to your operation.

Gatwick: attack of the drones

Authors – French Caldwell and Richard Stiennon

Key takeaways –

  1. Air transportation infrastructure is particularly vulnerable to non-lethal attacks by drones
  2. Regulatory controls alone will not stop drone attacks
  3. Attacks like the one at Gatwick this week are a serious reputational blow to the drone industry and rapidly growing drone control software and analytics vendor ecology

For two nights in a row, people living along the flight path of London’s busy Gatwick airport have slept soundly.  Thanks to a drone attack that started at 9p.m. GMT on 19 December 2018, all flights have been grounded.  Sussex police have been playing whack-a-mole with whomever is controlling the drone or drones – every time they think they may be getting close, the drone disappears, only to reappear later.  Meanwhile Gatwick’s neighbors are experiencing life without jet noise, while tens of thousands of holiday travelers have been stranded. 

 Hacking geofencing.  This incident demonstrates in spades the fragility of critical infrastructure and the challenge posed by emerging technologies.  Drone pilots are required to follow rules that should prevent interference with airport operations, and the rules are enforced through the control system software for the drones.  Geofencing built into the software should shutdown drones that stray into restricted airspace.  The geofencing is built into either the application software on a smartphone or laptop external to the drone, or into the firmware internal to the drone – the former being the case for toy or hobby drones and the latter usually being the case for industrial drones used by businesses or government agencies.

 However, the mobile or laptop application software is most likely not un-hackable, and regarding industrial drones, former Gartner analyst Jeffrey Vining who has followed drone technology for over a decade stated, “The firmware is potentially hackable over the wireless connection from the operator to the drone,” enabling the operator to disable the geofencing.

 Drones have proven to be an effective means of disruption. The General Atomics MQ-1 Predator,piloted from remote workstations in Nevada, have wreaked havoc on suspected insurgents throughout the Mideast. In July, Houthi rebels claimed a drone attack against Abu Dhabi airport.  A Houthi military source said the armed drone flew 1,500km.  That claim of attack has been discredited but there have been drone attacks by Houthi in Yemen, most recently in April 2018.

There is no question that commercially available drones for hobbyists should have built-in systems that help reduce their ability to interfere with airports, freeways or stadiums, and perhaps avoid power transmission lines.  However, it will always be possible for hackers to circumvent those built-in controls or build their own flying devices with no controls at all.

Fragile infrastructure.  The infrastructure that is the network of airports around the world has proven to be fragile. Any frequent traveler knows that a major backup at a large hub like Dulles, or Heathrow, can have repercussions felt around the world as flights are diverted or delayed. The cause is usually weather, but the specter of a coordinated series of drone attacks that leverage this fragility calls for more robust defenses than regulatory-imposed controls alone. 

 Counter-drones and contingencies.  Counter-drone systems are already under development. The Silent Archer system from SRC combines drone sensing and targeting capabilities. ()Most counter-drone systems rely on radio frequency jamming to disable drones.One commercial venture, Apollo Shield,has a handheld device that looks like a futuristic rifle for taking out drones. Counter-drone laser and microwave systems such as those being developed by Raytheon for the U.S. military also offer a solution to interference by drones in restricted airspace.  However, intentionally crashing drones could introduce new problems, particularly for large drones where the hazardous materials from batteries or fuel may need to be dealt with following a crash. 

It would be easy to criticize Gatwick Airport for not recognizing their vulnerability to rogue drone flybys and investing in counter-drone technology. But, as always, the first victim is the test case for new attacks that illuminate threats. Now would be a good time for the U.K. Home Office and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to work with air traffic authorities on drone attack contingency plans and start educating airport administrators on the need to invest in counter-drone technology.


  1.  Public and private sector operators of airports,railroads, highways, stadiums, and other high traffic infrastructure should develop and practice contingency plans for drone attacks
  2. Governments should accelerate drone air traffic control system projects, and include defenses and drone attack contingency plans in those projects
  3. Commercial drone manufacturers like DJI, Yuneec, GroPro, and the rapidly emerging drone geofencing and analytics software ecology, including vendors like Airmap, PrecisionHawk, sensefly, Airware and others, should develop common standards that support drone air traffic control and non-military counter-drone defenses

The Longest Last Mile

Imagine a rain of hot soup, a hail of pills, and a meteor shower of packages…

The Logistics of Delivery Drones

Don’t believe the hype…

I used to get a question from clients on a fairly regular basis—the question went along the lines of: When do Delivery Drones begin being a thing? My answer would disappoint most, but really you have to kind of do the math on this one, before you realize just how much has to be done before we get there.

Besides the obvious problems of battery life versus distance along with weight and how much a single drone delivery costs and how many flights before ROI. There’s problems about where and how to land, like should we all have designated landing areas in our yards or rooftops. If it’s a building rooftop, who does the sorting and delivering or is everyone’s stuff just left in a pile? Assuming it’s not a giant online retailer, but say the local pharmacy, do you drop the drugs without a human presence, or do you have to hover until a human with a pin code arrives? And where and how does the drone recharge? I’ve seen and heard so many possible systems!

But even beyond all that logistical dilemma lies a much larger one…

The real logistical issues are going to be with the UAS Traffic Management (UTM) systems. It seems like such an easy thing until you think about a city like Manhattan. You’ll have drone messengers, food delivery, delivery services, laundry services, diaper services, retail delivery, groceries, and just about every other thing you can imagine.  Millions of drones. All in a perfect and non-stop ballet of precision and avoidance!

…and that’s not considering the thousands of pilotless air taxis!

Or an entire system of priorities, like emergency equipment, police and fire drones, unmanned ambulances, etc., etc.

Sunny with a chance of hot soup rain and possible pharmaceutical hail…

The photo above was a common one at the turn of the 19th century, when there might be only two cars in an entire county and yet somehow they’d find each other.

Imagine a rain of hot soup, a hail of pills, and a meteor shower of packages…

How do you go about creating a system that will not only manage the flights of millions of payload-heavy drones but also monitors the manned flights above and intersecting that air space as well as any unidentified objects and what to do about them? A system like this will no doubt require AI, and all of the AI trappings/baggage that will go along with it. But more importantly, how does the system track and manipulate millions of devices down to the centimeter.

The UTM is going to become an incredibly intricate part of any city’s government. It will need to have the ability to include special missions, new parameters, and will no doubt be a huge budget line item for maintenance and repair. It’s going to need auditors and supervisors and investigators. It will need to interact with other city systems, private business systems, as well as state and federal systems. If you’re getting the impression that this is going to cost millions if not billions of dollars, you’d be right.

Currently, there are UTM tests under way at the FAA test areas. NASA has been testing UTM at its Ames facilities, and other private companies are also testing UTM.

How does a system like this work? The details are still sketchy. But here’s what you can probably expect. Companies and individuals will register with the UTM (either an area or city system) and will get a hardware package to add to their drone.This will make sure each drone has the minimum requirements to operate in the system and will include a communications chip like 5G, an altimeter, a GNSS chip (similar to a GPS chip but much more accurate), a chip that stores flight data and a unique ID.

And this is just from the city side… you still would have a whole other system on the drone owner side that would include, package data such as weight and mass, energy management,craft maintenance, mileage, flight logs and any additional pertinent data.