Stately airships that once ferried passengers across the world's oceans have mostly given way to winged aircraft since the 1930s. But a new solar-powered design may resurrect lighter-than-air technology by combining the buoyancy of airships with an aircraft's wings. The result: a flying truck that doesn't need roads where it's going.
Such hybrid aircraft could respond to medical emergencies in remote areas without landing strips, monitor wildlife, scout for the military, or even haul heavy cargo. That vision by Solar Ships, a Canadian company, emerged in recent videos that showcase both real flight tests and future concepts. Solar panels on top of the aircraft lend meaning to the Solar Ships slogan: "No roads, no fuel, no infrastructure."
Different sizes of the aircraft range from the flying equivalents of a 4x4 pickup truck to an 18-wheeler. The pickup-size version, called the Caracal, could act as a flying ambulance or recon vehicle. A midsize version, the Chui, could carry more than 2,200 pounds across 621 miles per day. The largest version, the Nanuq, is expected to haul 33 tons of cargo for unlimited distances.
The latest prototype used in flight tests resembles a stubby, flying-wing aircraft with a helium-filled body. Having helium gives the aircraft more lifting power combined with the usual aerodynamics of a winged airplane, and also enables very short takeoffs and landings.
But unlike airships, a solar ship can fly without helium as an ordinary aircraft. Its heavier-than-air body also doesn't need to be tied down because of any dangers of drifting away.
All the promised advantages of such an aircraft won't come together until Solar Ships can build a prototype that includes technologies such as smart electronics, high-efficiency solar panels and lightweight batteries to store the renewable energy. But it could be a vision well worth waiting for.