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. 

Networking

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.

Travel?

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.

Author: Gerald Vanhoy

Gerald Van Hoy was an Sr. Research Analyst for Gartner for 18 years and covered the areas of Semiconductors, Robotics, Automation, and Machine Intelligence and Vision and especially the areas where they overlapped. He covered the Consumer, Commercial and Military Markets with regards to these and other technologies. Prior to working for Garner he held positions as Statistical Analyst and Business Analyst.

One thought on “Drone Dirigibles… No Really: Dirigibles!”

  1. One other thing about dirigibles — they are awfully hard to shoot down. In WWII they’d come back to base with lots of bullet holes, but it takes forever for all the helium to leak. It makes them great for surveillance in areas where there are bullets flying back and forth, or just in areas where people like to take pot shots at things — ever notice all the bullet pock marks on speed cameras in some areas? So border enforcement is a great role. Only problem is that you’d probably not use them in areas where you don’t want to be seen.

Leave a Reply