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The Aerospace Blog is the place for conversation and discussion about aeronautics, astronautics, fixed-wing aircraft, future space travel, satellites, NASA, and much more.

HUSH Loves Airships, Part 3

Posted September 24, 2014 8:32 AM by HUSH

Twice now I've taken to my CR4 soapbox to proclaim, "This is the airship of the future!" The first was back in November 2012; the second was this past March.

Almost certainly, my desire to see new life breathed into an obsolete mode of transportation is heavily nostalgic and novelty. They fascinated me as a kid on the rare occasion I glimpsed one. As an adult, they serve primarily as billboards, but they are also a faint reminder that I once recognized them as something more than that. Blimps and airships were once the truest form of airliner; they melded luxurious accommodation with efficient service and travel. Today, 'airliner' refers to company who charges you per cracker served mid-flight.

So I won't argue that airships are coming back or that they have a bright future. Rather, let's examine how one peculiar type of theoretical airship could push aerospace material science to new heights.

Enter the vacuum airship. This type of aircraft is considered the first concept of a flying machine that, if built, could actually fly. It was devised by the Italian monk Francesco Lana-Terzi in 1686, who was a professor of physics and math. He was inspired by the atmospheric pressure work of Otto von Guericke, developer of the vacuum pump, and utilizing his scientific knowledge he envisioned an airship whose balloons were completely empty.

Lana theorized that he could construct a boat-like vehicle tethered to four evacuated spheres, with a sail and rudder for sailing. The craft would float until the density of the atmosphere counter-balanced the weight of the ship, and it could be landed by letting small amounts of air into the spheres.

There were several reasons Lana never built his airship. He believed God wouldn't let such a device succeed, on account it could grant an insurmountable advantage to armies. He also pledged himself to a life of poverty as a monk, so he could never amount the resources required.

Oh yeah, he also had no clue what to make it out of, and this represents the same problem with vacuum airships today. The vacuum tanks would need to withstand enormous atmospheric pressure once evacuated. While modern materials can overcome this structural load, it can't be done without weighing down the vessel to a non-buoyant density.

Of course, researchers and scientists have had 300 years to solve this problem, right? Yes, but virtually no attention has been paid to this reliable concept. Once Portuguese priest Bartolomeu de Gusmao nearly burned down the royal palace while demonstrating a successful hot air balloon, vacuum-based atmospheric buoyancy lost all interest.

As sustainable engineering and resource management become integral routines, not just chores, many ideas once considered impractical are revisited if they can be efficient. Obviously, blimps need large amounts of helium or hydrogen to remain buoyant, but helium is in low supply and expensive while hydrogen goes boom. But a vacuumed structure would create static lift which can be drawn upon to fly almost anything. And this is 2014, the age of supermaterials--graphene, aerographite, buckminsterfullerene--something has to be able to support this extreme pressure, right? And even if such an invention isn't used for a vacuum airship, it could be practical for thousands of other applications. Entire floating cities could be a reality and flying cars would require minimal energy resources.

So far, the closest we've gotten is a three-layer shell with a low-density core of aluminum honeycomb or ceramic foam that is between two ceramic sheets of boron carbide or silicon carbide. The initial research suggests that thousands of 10 cm or smaller balloons could be constructed and harnessed to deliver lift to a vehicle or platform. While not useful quite yet, there are developments being made. Perhaps the most interesting case is for carbon nanotubes that have buckminsterfullerene caps. If they could be manufactured in a vacuum and produced on a large enough scale, they could provide captured static lift.

Even though vacuum airships were obsolete before they were even realized, they continue to forge presence in the aerospace industry. Just because it wasn't built, doesn't mean potential real engineering solutions are valueless.

6 comments; last comment on 10/05/2014
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Guided Robots to Speed Fuselage Build

Posted September 15, 2014 9:06 PM by IHS GlobalSpec eNewsletter

Boeing intends to improve workplace safety by automating the production of its 777 fuselage. Rather than relying on the manual installation of some 60,000 fasteners, the company wants guided robots to fasten fuselage panels together. The program, under development since 2012, uses a robotic system designed for Boeing by KUKA Systems. It joins other automated manufacturing systems now involved with 777 production, including the wing painting operation shown here.

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1 comments; last comment on 09/17/2014
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The Evolution of Aerspace Design Verification

Posted September 03, 2014 12:00 AM by IHS GlobalSpec eNewsletter

As aerospace systems become more complex, so do the validation and verification processes needed to ensure product integrity. Today's simulation tools plus hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) systems are required to verify code and replicate standard communication bus interfaces, such as ARINC 429 or 1394B. This ability to perform tests without real components keeps costs down. It also helps quality assurance engineers anticipate all potential problems. This report from SAE International explains why there are "no shortcuts for verifying, validating aerospace system designs."

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The Aircraft Manufacturing Revolution Continues

Posted August 26, 2014 12:00 AM by IHS GlobalSpec eNewsletter

The tools necessary for aircraft manufacture have changed rapidly over the past decade. Who could have predicted that the most critical pieces of equipment in the factory - enormous autoclaves for curing very large components - would evolve from their smaller counterparts in medicine and other applications. But, as this article points out, autoclave size, high cost, and power consumption has encouraged the search for alternatives. Microwave curing, for example, can reduce energy consumption 90% and accommodate curing in sections, impossible with an autoclave. The next step? Additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing), at least for small, intricate parts.

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1 comments; last comment on 10/05/2014
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Projecting the Capabilities of Future Fighter Jets

Posted August 15, 2014 12:00 AM by IHS GlobalSpec eNewsletter

Naturally, one would expect the latest and greatest technologies to be incorporated into the design of next-generation military fighter jets. It's just a testament of how far some technologies have advanced when the explorations include 3D printing and self-healing materials. The truth is that additive manufacturing has progressed so much that the "what might be" list includes on-board 3D printers so that drones could be built while the fighter is in flight. Also, since fighters sustain damage, why not components made from self-healing materials? Here are a few projections that BAE Systems makes for jets that won't fly until 2040.

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3 comments; last comment on 08/18/2014
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Spacesuit Design Takes Giant Leap Forward

Posted July 22, 2014 7:50 PM by IHS GlobalSpec eNewsletter

Today's astronauts take spacewalks in suits designed three decades ago. But those who step onto the rough surface of Mars in 2030 will don suits being re-engineered now to take a giant leap forward in comfort and protection. The current Z-2 prototype uses advanced materials to help cut the weight of the suit in half, to withstand a full vacuum, and to offer better protection against radiation and micrometeorite strikes. Other design improvements include rotating bearings in shoulder and hip joints to improve astronaut mobility and better sealing and CO2 handling, eliminating the need for airlocks on the spacecraft.

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1 comments; last comment on 07/24/2014
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