The Airship Revolution is brewing. Starting with UAVs


Hello diydrones, my name is Wesley and I'm an airship designer. Most of my work is in manned thermal dirigibles, but I am also working on traditional gas lifted designes as well. There is another member here, Ahmed, who has inspired me to post my own blog on this sublject as he has developed a bungee activated rail-launch system for HTA (Heavier-than-Air) Drones which I believe is the key ingredient in my LTA UAV concept.

The project I'm working on now is called "Colossus" and will be a three-hulled hybrid Unmanned Hybrid Dirigible. The primary hull will contain a surveillance suite of it's own as well as all shipborne telemetry systems. The primary hull is capable of independent flight without the two outrigger nacelles, which are called "flight nacelles".

The Flight Nacelles will have a rail based launching system in the forward section of the nacelle and will have 4 HTA Drones with an 8' wingspan clipped on to the launcher at the time of the Colossus lift-off. They can be deployed while in flight, and will be recovered at the aft of the flight nacelle where automatic refueling/recharging systems will be placed. Once refueled/recharged, the trapeze which holds the drone to the Flight Nacelle moves forward and the craft is once again ready for deployment.

The Colossus, when complete, will be able to launch 6 HTA Drones at a time.

Now, I'm sure most of you are asking "Well what in the name of Jefferson Davis would make you want to launch a UAV from a 'blimp?'" Good question.

UAV's are aircraft just like any other. With limitations. Particularly on distance and range. In a military or law enforcement setting, you can't always get a UAV into place cheaply. Sometimes the unit has to be flown overseas and operated from a FOB in or near a combat zone. The UAV's at the base are open to attack, and once the drone base is discovered and compromised, you often have to bug out to a different location.

In Law Enforcement it is even more difficult because there is often only one drone available for use which can rearely cover enough area to be operationally effective in a reasonable amount of time. It's even harder if the drone needs to be transported to a different part of the state to allow for operation.

The Colossus project is primarily designed for Law Enforcement and Counter-Insurgency/Counter-Terrorism purposes. It will allow up to 12 HTA Drones to be placed in a given area of operation about 20,000 feet up. The Airship, powered by solar, parks itself in station-keeping above the AO, and the drones are deployed from the sky. This gives less time and opportunity for them to be shot down. It also removes a ground-based launch facility from the equation. At 60', the Colossus will have a very small radar signature, and can be coated with radar absorbtive substances for Military use....criminals and terrorists generally don't have radar.

Of course, this will be more than just a RC Blimp and a few RC Airplanes. The Dirigible itself would have to have a crew to operate all the systems on board. A Helmsman for steering, a Stablizer to operate elevators and control ballast and gas release, a port and starboard side Flight Boss who each control the launch and recovery of the HTA Drones, releasing docking clamps, monitoring the approach control cameras, and a shipboard sensor operator to run the airships on-board surveillance systems. A true team effort. Then there would be one pilot for each drone in the sky.

The Flight Nacelles will be fitted with an amidships mounted camera system which can monitor the drones on the launch rails, as well as monitor the drones progress and provide direction to the drone pilot during the recovery procedures. The launch and recovery will operate much in the same way as they did on the giant flying aircraft carriers of the last century (USS Los Angeles, USS Macon, USS Shennandoah), and the craft will have an extremely long range and can stay parked in s-k for a long time.

While the little drones go off to take regular or IR pictures and video, the Colossus can have more sophisiticated systems on board such as ground penetrating radar and other more sophisticated surveillance systems that have thus far unable to be mounted on small UAV's. I once heard a friend of mine who worked with military stuff say; "If you can fit it on a satellite, you can fit it in an aerostat (unmanned unpowered surveillance blimp). So while the drones are away on their mission, the Colossus can also continue to provide surveillance support of it's own rather than simply being a launch/recovery platform.

If only the airship's systems are needed for a given operation, the Flight Nacelles will be able to be removed to allow the airship to fly as an independent unit.

Where am I, exactly, in this project? Farther than you might think. I have the designs worked out. The HTA Drone launch and recovery systems are still on the drawing board, but a prototype "proof-of-concept" airframe should be completed by this time next year. I'll be sewing the envelope for the main hull this winter and will be constructing a much smaller (20') flight capable model to test airframe performance as well. The test frame will use weighted bags of water to simulate the weight of HTA Drones to test flight characteristics prior to and immediately after launch...IE, how to rebalance an unmanned LTA-UAV on the fly. It will be using air as ballast in ballonets mounted under the primary lifting ballonets in 6 places throughout the hull structure and can dump and refill in flight.

To answer your next question, no I don't have any help. Doing it all by myself right now. This blog represents a very VERY short verbal summary of a project that I have been working on for 3 years now. I only just recently discovered this website when I was researching HTA Drones to determine which would be the best for my design.

Any help, advice, design suggestions or encouragement are more than welcome. I understand that there is still a great hatred of airships as a result of the mistakes we made in the last century, but even the Hindenburg crash was a result of pilot error, not the fact that hydrogen was the lifting gas. The Macon crashed due to a design flaw in the tail-section (it was an unworkable design to begin with and we wasted our money on it and should have stuck with Eckener's designs for the Zeppelin tail section). It is because of our own mistakes and shortsightedness that airship research and development stalled almost entirely for 80 years.

Now it is a new Century. Hopefully it will bring a new Revolution in Airship design and manufacturing.

The areas that I particularly need help with are in the launch/recovery design systems. Creating the lightest weight system possible which is still sturdy enough to provide years of service. This will require a fairly complex servo control system to accomplish, I also have -literally- NO experience in adapting telemetry systems, but I do know that the ship itself will have to have a flight-telemetry system, but the Flight Nacelles will also have to have a system on board that can monitor the speed and whatnot of incoming HTA Drones for approach control purposes in addition to the cameras which will give the Flight Boss a visual reference of the progress of the landing drone.

Once I figure out how to post images here where I want them, then I will put up copies of the designs as they stand now. I'm using google skethcup to create the first models....everything else is on paper (I'm kinda old school like that, but then again...I am an airship old school is that).

Anyway...Hope you enjoyed this and I look forward to hearing from all of you.

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  • I'll post up multi-angle pictures of the finished draft design in a couple days.  I'm using Google Sketchup for all computer related design, otherwise woe be to the one who stumbles in to my office and sees the mess that actually goes into these designs.  Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one left who does more than 80% of their designs with pencil, paper and slide rule.  I never was one to follow fashions though.  I like to use what gets the job done with the least amount of hassle, and pencil and paper doesn't crash losing all your design changes. 


    A lot of aircraft engineers refuse to take me seriously because I appear to them to be a throwback from a past they'd rather stay the past.  I still use a manual typewriter to write letters that go in the mailbox.  Who here remembers what a "letter" or "mailbox" is?

  • More updates on launch and recovery systems as well as flight handling characteristics. 


    I've been talking to a few people with a LOT more experience in the systems that control UAV's from the ground than I have and it seems as though the entire system can be automated as far as maintaining level flight is concerned without the need for an elevatorman which can enable a sinlge pilot to operate the airship while in flight or for the airship itself to be entirely autonomous save for emergency control siezure.  Also, the drones launched from the airship can be autonomous during operations.  An autonomous surveillance platform that can cover an area the size of California in a single day....or a city the size of Los Angeles in less than an hour. 


    However, technical capabilities and equipment weight limitations in launch and recovery design will require the drone to be piloted during landing procedures (it seems like it could be automated, but my experience with airships tells me that it will be a lot safer and less expensive to manually pilot the drones in to the landing hooks...less likely to lose the drone that way...) and the launch and recovery system will have to be rail mounted on an external keel-girder externally rather than internally mounted and stored with a descending crane for launch (as in the Akron and Macon).


    The downside to this is that the airship will not be able to attain higher speeds (of 50 kts or greater) due to the drag created by the keel-girder, but the upside is that the airfoils of the drones can act as a stabilizing force while underway fully loaded (Think of 6 little set of wings sticking out from underneath each Flight Nacelle) and theoretically the engines/props of the drones can be used to boost thrust of the airship if need be (that will require the right underside stabilization system...I'm working with a three-point crane design which stabilize the craft after it has hooked-on.  One cradle on the tail section of the fuselage and two stabilizing arms that lower down and clip on to each wing to prevent pitch and roll during flight.  


    Also, the design of the launch/recovery keel has been changed so that now 3 drones will launch and recover from the fore and three from the aft.  Rather than launching from the fore and recovering from the aft.  The landing approach will still come from the aft in all cases.


    It seems like a lot of people have been thinking about how to launch a drone from an airship, just that no one has come up with a serviceable airframe that makes the construction of an airship worth the time, effort and expense.


    As I said before, my interests are in airframe design with manned vessels.  This is my first foray into unmanned technology design.  I really appreciate all the help advice and support you all have given me. 


    Here in about a month I'll start having the pictures to post of the frame construction, I'm ordering the materials next week.  The initial test-frame will be a balsa and lightweight plastic frame with 18 main support rings using Arnstein's pyramidal ring design from the Macon/Akron and Eckener's cruciform tail section from the later German Zeppelin designs like the LZ-129.  My design calls for seven cruciform rings throughout all three hulls, one for the tail, and two each in the main hull and both flight nacelles for a robust nacelle extension/retraction support platform.  Depending on how the first flight tests go, it may be necessary to add two more partial cruciform rings to the Flight Nacelles to support the 1/2 empennage on each Nacelle (a single rudder on the upper part of the envelope, and a single elevator on the outside face of the Nacelle) or the Nacelle Empennage idea ditched altogether...however they would be necessary on a full-sized manned version. 


    I'll post more updates as the design comes along.  I'll post up multi

  • Oh yeah, and they actually discovered that it was a very simple set of procedures.  The program was a rousing success except for the top brass at the time that refused to allow Arnstein to make the retrofits needed to strengthen the tail section and the failure of the program was blamed on the airships not the people. 


    In every conflict that we have found ourselves in since the end of the Navy Airship program, the conflict would have a much more easily assured positive outcome with the addition of traditional prop driven aircraft launched from an airship platform for arial surveillance, recon and close-air support.  Today, the arial ISR can be achieved with UAV's on a much smaller, cheaper platform. 


    However, it is still easy to start building giant airships again and using them for functional military and commercial purposes.  My Colossus design could be upscaled to carry and launch (but not recover) up to 4 SpaceShipTwo's of the Virgin Galactic commercial space program.  The platform could launch twice the Space Planes at half the cost.  There are all sorts of reasons we need to start focusing on rigid airships again as a viable aircraft platform to get us into the future.


    It would even be possible to build unmanned cargo carriers using the Colossus design with satellite based communication that pick up cargo containers at the point of manufacture, say in the middle of China, transport the cargo over the Pacific using the Jet Stream and fly directly over the middle of Kansas and drop a container directly at the point of delivery thereby bypassing both the shipping and trucking aspect of cargo hauling.


    We need to return focus on airships if we're going to become much more truly technologically advanced as a species.  It's the closest thing to anti-gravity that we have achieved at our current level of development.  Airships are what can teach what to do once we actually figure out anti-gravity.

  • As a fan of airship I will be watching intently.

    @ bGatti  The USS Akron and USS Macon successfully launched and recovered AV (UAVs with people in them) in the 1930s.  It can be done.

  • Recovery process will work almost exactly as it did on the manned flying aircraft carriers.  A trapeze system that the drone will fly up to and hook on to.  This will require the same amount of coordination between the drone and the airship as it did with manned craft, but the Navy got quite skilled at it and it was actually easier to accomplish than landing on the deck of a pitchiing aircraft carrier at sea.


    The difference between my design and Arnstein's design for the Macon is that there will be no bays for the drones to be lifted up in.  The launch and recovery system will operate on a servo actuated rail-based hook and trapeze system integrated into the lower keel of each flight nacelle.  The craft will simply hang underneath the flight nacelle and be dropped away for launch, and then be recovered from the aft underside of the airship...Fly up from behind it, match speed and altitude and close the distance between the hook and the trapeze slowly until you can accomplish hook-on.

  • How do you recover UAV?

  • Hehe I start thinking same concept about 4 months ago - but I not have enough free time :(

  • Hi again,

    if the military would go for airshops, the price for helium would rise even faster, wouldn´it?

    Mentioning Hydrogen brings up another problem: The gas dissolves from the hull, helium too. THis is a problem for long endurace missions...

    And one thing that is always critical with airships is weather... Wind will make it nearly impossible to handle, especially on the ground..

  • As these are unmanned, hydrogen can be used as lifting gas in production models.  If, like the Hindenburg, the production model is sized to be lifted with helium, but instead inflated with hydrogen then one finds the lifting capacity consierably raised.  It could also be done as a hybrid system with helium in the lower sections of the envelope and hydrogen in the upper. 


    Another thing that would help in preventing that helium price hike would be military development in airship technology starting with UAV's.  Maybe?  Maybe not?

  • I like airships and I agree they could have a new rennaissance but there's a big blow coming their way. in the form of Helium being deregulated in a few years it will cost over 100 bucks just to fill a party balloon.


    anyway a launch system can be as simple a bungee catapolt. a one or two rails, a set of bungees with a open front hook connected to a motor on a ratcheted winch and a servo to hit the release. it's going to be the recovery and post  flight systems that's going to be a pain.  


    I'll have to think aboutit but I would think about wierless charging in you uavs to make it a little less complex

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