LTA Research’s proof-of-concept Pathfinder 1 modernizes a fully rigid airship design with a largely carbon fiber composite frame. R&D has already begun on higher volume, more automated manufacturing for the future.
Today, large, rigid-framed airships are usually viewed only in black-and-white photos from the first half of the 20th century, popularized at the time by the zeppelins of Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH (Friedrichshafen, Germany) and military airships like the U.S.S. Akron and the U.S.S. Macon. Tragic accidents to both of these airships, the German Hindenburg and others led to the eventual end of the rigid airship era both for passengers and cargo and, eventually, for militaries. Since the 1960s, today’s airships are mostly in the form of non-rigid blimps.
However, several companies are working toward a new generation of rigid, structured airships, working alongside Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations and using contemporary technologies and materials to ensure safer manufacturing and operation.
One of these is airship company Lighter Than Air (LTA) Research (Mountain View, Calif., U.S.), which aims to create a new generation of airships that are inherently safer and faster than those previously built.
LTA’s CEO Alan Weston, who worked previously at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), NASA Ames Research Center and the Florida Space Institute at the University of Central Florida, started the company with the goal of reducing carbon emissions in air transportation. He decided to focus on modernization of electric or alternatively powered airships as a potential low- or zero-emissions air transport option.
In 2014, Weston began a deep dive into research on airship designs, starting with historians and researchers at the University of Akron and talks with airship designers from companies like Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH and Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.
As the research work progressed, Weston recognized that the airships he was developing had potential to augment humanitarian relief efforts, such as transport of supplies to natural disaster-stricken areas. Airships can dock virtually anywhere and do not rely on availability of intact airstrips or landing zones, can hover for a long period of time to pick up people or drop off goods and can be designed to carry large payloads, all qualities that could lend themselves well in relief efforts.
The company was officially founded in 2015 and backed by Google cofounder Sergey Brin. By 2016, LTA Research had two locations: an R&D lab in Akron, Ohio, U.S., to test design and manufacturing techniques, and a hangar in Mountain View, Calif., U.S. That year, LTA constructed and flew its first small-scale airship models in Mountain View and soon after began production of its first full-scale airship, Pathfinder 1.
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