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Blimps On The Radar
Zeppelins, creatures of aviation's Jurassic era, nosedived into oblivion in 1937 when the mammoth 804-foot long Hindenburg blew up at the New Jersey landing field, killing 36 of the 92 passengers. Though largely consigned to aviation museums, a few abridged versions called blimps can still be sighted in the skies over the US, carrying not people or goods but billboards.
Quixotic as it might seem in the age of Concordes and Boeings, some scientists are now trying to resurrect the dodos and give them their long-lost place in the skies. Mandarins in the science and technology ministry are also believers. They are now seriously hoping to revive it as a means of transport in India, especially in the relatively inaccessible Himalayan regions.
The project is sponsored by the ministry's Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council (tifac). Y.S. Rajan, executive director, tifac, and chief instigator of the enterprise, says modern airships—or zeppelins, dirigibles or blimps, as they are variously called—would be assuredly safer than their ancestors if we account for the sophistication achieved in guidance systems and avionics in recent times.
Airships, Rajan believes, would also make for cheaper travel for they can take off and land vertically, and hence do not require expensive runways or airstrips. Several airlines have evinced keenness in taking part in the project, he says.
The idea was first mooted in August 2000 as a potential mode of transport for the newly-created state of Uttaranchal. Explains R.K. Pant, aerospace engineer and leader of the iit group husbanding the project: "Since the cost of setting up and maintaining suitable road and rail infrastructure can be prohibitively high for poor and mountainous states like Uttaranchal, not to mention the ecological costs, networking the state via air seemed a very good idea." And if not aircraft, due to the prohibitive costs in terms of airstrips and communications needed, how about airships? If one could demonstrate that they are safe, reliable and economically viable, won't they fit the bill?
That's precisely the brief for Pant's team. "The objective is the indigenous design and development of an airship and delivery of at least one flight-worthy prototype. We have completed the first phase, which was to conceive the design." The scientists will now build prototypes of two airships: first, a demo airship 30 m long and 9 m wide, which can soar to a height of 3.5 km and carry two persons or a load of 100 kg; and second, a much larger passenger model—75 m long and 22 m wide, which can carry 15-25 passengers or 1.5-2 tonne cargo. Public institutions like Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, the Airport Authority of India, the Aeronautical Development Agency and the Defence Research and Development Organisation are also providing inputs.
Pant says the first prototype could roll out by 2004 and commercial flights commence three years later. The project will largely be executed using well-developed and proven technologies available globally. "We don't want to reinvent the wheel. We are already in touch with our counterparts in the US, Russia and Germany, where similar efforts are on, so that we can choose what's best for us and adapt it to our conditions," he explains. The project team is also talking to firms that specialise in airships like Zeppelin GmbH of Germany, Advanced Technology Group of the UK, and American Blimp Corporation.
Preliminary costs, including for three prototype airships, is estimated at Rs 100-125 crore—airships of this class cost around Rs 30 crore apiece. But a more realistic estimate would be known a few months from now, says Pant. The airships could be used for a variety of other purposes also, apart from transporting people and goods. Some interesting applications: ad displays, aerial photography and surveillance, ferrying relief supplies and medical/paramedical staff during natural disasters, aerial surveys for geological and ecological purposes, controlling illegal poaching and tree-logging.
Scientists believe the future of airships is bright, with most technical problems already solved. Still, the problem of getting them into production seems to centre around public relations, and the economics of producing them. "If regulatory bodies are convinced of their air-worthiness, then the final problem would be to attract investors with the vision and financial clout to launch a new era in air transportation," says Pant. This blimp is serious stuff.