The first type of aircraft capable of powered flight, airships enjoyed a brief period of usefulness during the first half of the 20th century, before being abandoned in favour of aeroplanes and being consigned to performing menial tasks such as acting as glorified advertising billboards. However, now airships are making a comeback.

California-based Aeroscraft Corporation (Aeros) describes its airship, the 40D Sky Dragon, as the future of air shipping and travel. Russia-based mineral exploration company Amur Minerals Corporation has already expressed an interest in using it to transport equipment to a Siberian exploration site. Indeed, one of the major selling points of the ship is that it is capable of carrying heavy and over-sized cargo. 

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Head in the clouds

Aeros is located in southern California, an area known for being a large cluster for aerospace research and development and manufacturing corporations. The company was founded there in 1994, after its founder and CEO, Igor Pasternak, emigrated to California from the former Soviet Union after the USSR's collapse in order to pursue his dream of reviving the largely redundant airship.

Mr Pasternak chose southern California for its well-developed aerospace infrastructure. “Most important is its access to the world’s best aviation engineering minds, suppliers and facilities,” he says.

Today, his company's corporate offices and centre of innovation are both in the Los Angeles suburb of Montebello, and its 46,000-square-metre final assembly and flight test facility is nearby in the city of Tustin. While intent on maintaining its headquarters in California, Aeros is now evaluating final assembly sites for the airship in five other states.

So far, Aeros has invested about $25m in developing the technology for its control of static heaviness system, while governmental partners have invested approximately $60m since 2009 in the military application of this technology.

Mr Pasternak also sees a huge commercial potential in the airship's cargo carrying capacity: it provides a transport solution that is faster than rail, road or sea, is light weight and is capable of performing vertical take-offs and landings.

Up, up and away?

Airships are being developed by other companies, including US aerospace engineering giant Lockheed Martin and US manufacturer Goodyear, as well as a host of specialist airship designers and manufacturers such as California-based Aerovehicles, Ohio Airships, and UK-based Varialift Airships and Hybrid Air Vehicles.

One of the most established names in the industry is Goodyear, which has been manufacturing airships since 1925. It has built its newest airship, Goodyear NT, in partnership with the renowned German-based manufacturer Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik. Parts for the ship – including the gondola, tail fins and frame – are made by Zeppelin in Friedrichshafen, Germany, before being shipped to the US, where they are assembled in Goodyear's hangar at Wingfoot Lake in Mogadore, Ohio, by Zeppelin and Goodyear personnel.

“The Wingfoot Lake hangar is Goodyear's best-suited location for airship construction in the US,” says Doug Grassian, airship spokesman for Goodyear. “The building itself was specially constructed for blimp builds in 1917, and has been expanded twice since then to adapt to needs.” 

Full to bursting

Finding the space to construct these enormous machines is no easy task, particularly in smaller countries such as the UK. Ernesto Sonia, Varialift's business development director, explains that the company's research and development is done in the Birmingham area, largely because the company’s founder is from there, and the city is known for its production, manufacturing and metal work prowess. Finding a manufacturing site for its airships was not so straightforward, however. 

“It’s difficult to find a very large space such as an airfield or NATO airbase that can accommodate us,” says Mr Sonia.

The company has been offered a site in France, which provides the necessary infrastructure. “We expect to manufacture our airships within 24 months,” says Mr Sonia. Once the plant is up and running, Varialift expects to build similar assembly plants in other countries.

Mr Sonia says that companies have expressed their interest in forming a joint venture with Varialift, and that several locations have indicated a willingness to provide huge tax incentives and funds to the firm. “We know we have something big here,” he says. “Varialift airship has the capability of obtaining very high altitudes and carrying significant payloads.”

Having successfully completed the first test flight at the end of 2011, Varialift is now seeking European certification for its airship. “Once we have that, we will get Federal Aviation Administration certification in the US,” says Mr Sonia.

With airships still in the prototype stage, there is a long way to go before they enter commercial production, and it is yet to be seen whether they can realise their potential as a viable alternative to existing shipping methods. But, at least for now, they have been saved from the clutches of obsolescence.