Project UpLift: Airships for Humanity

29 Jan

proposed next generation airship


– A UN sponsored airship program for flexible, efficient delivery of aid material and personnel.

– An advanced cargo airship with static lift control, zero emissions, capable of vertical take off and landing.

– Airship bases for staging materials, and to spur development by providing employment, training and trade.

– A solar – hydrogen economy for oil independence.


This is an update of my thesis project, you can see the previous presentation here for background.  Originally focused on the commercial passenger sector, I’ve now taken on the challenge of providing efficient and effective transportation in unstable regions.  I don’t see the airship as a standalone cure, but rather as an enabler for the various solutions that are needed in war, famine, natural disasters, etc. This blog will be mainly an effort to document my process more effectively, everything you see will consist mostly of sketches and maquettes and diagrams.  I appreciate all your comments.


A data point before I continue:  The Hindenburg was an order of magnitude more efficient than a 747, per ton mile, as adjusted for inflation.

For a more thorough FAQ about airships, their efficiencies, history, safety etc, go here. It will be quite clear that airships are safe and economical ways of transporting goods.


The project consists of three parts,  the system, the airship itself and the solar/hydrogen economy.  The concept behind the whole project is that of ecological succession and pollination.  After a disturbance in an ecosystem, such as fire, disease, volcanic eruptions etc, certain species of plant, usually carried by the wind, will seed first.  For example, moss and lichen, certain weeds and grasses will grow where other plants can’t; in or on rocky areas, lava fields.  Through their natural processes, they break down the minerals, add their organic material, and eventually, create soil.  Once soil is created, other types of plant, with different root structures and growing conditions, will grow and expand the livable area.  As the process continues, the ecosystem will mature, and depending on the climate, will become For a more thorough reading on succession go here.

Similarly the airship is the wind borne agent that brings succor in times of disaster, and even after, will continue to take part in the rehabilitation and development of afflicted areas and persons, by carrying seeds, exports, tourists, etc.



An extremely simplified diagram of the complex process of aid.

I am still in the process of understanding exactly what happens during the relief process, but the above graphic shows my basic understanding.  Aid relief is a gigantic undertaking, and the organizations that organize it are similarly gargantuan.  Updates are forthcoming.


With respect to the problems concerning aid,  my research indicates that the problem is as much the sourcing of materials, as it is the problem of delivering the materials.  The cost of transportation itself is a factor.  Helicopters cost upwards of 3000 dollars an hour to rent.    Closed checkpoints, flooded or destroyed roads, corrupt officials, thieving warlords can hinder the delivery of aid.

Airplanes can drop supplies into many areas, but there are things you can’t airdrop, including but not limited to:

1) Water.

2) Sensitive equipment, such as water purifiers.

3) People not trained to parachute.



The map quickly illustrates areas that receive aid.  Green are donor countries and red are heavy to extreme aid recipients.

Airships can be extremely useful in those situations where conventional transport is expensive, unfeasible or nonexistent.  In short, the logistical obstacles posed by existing transport systems can be alleviated.  The airship is, in the instance,  a plugin to augment traditional transport.

(According to the Top Ten Myths of Disaster Relief, most relief materials can be purchased in the country where the disaster occurs.  Taking this into account, the system need not use long range, transoceanic airships.)

By overlaying a map of transportation routes, one starts to get a rough sense of the shape of the system.  The airships would be based near transportation hubs, to piggyback on existing facilities and capabilities.  Supposing a 5000km range for the airship, we can serve the African continent with three main airship ports in South Africa, Egypt and , with other ports set up, as needed.  The ad hoc ports can be maintained, and continue to serve the communities through the emergency to redevelopment.


Macro view of proposed network

Airship Ports:

Like airports, the complexity of an airship port can vary, from very simple small airports to giant international airport complexes.  For the sake of simplicity I’ll break it down to three types of airship port.

Type 1:

The most basic airship port, consisting of an empty grass field of around 300m diameter, and simple sheds for administrative, maintenance staff.  Small warehouse for fuel and supplies.  It would be attached to a larger port facility as an initial foothold.  It can also be planted in remoter parts as a routing point.

Type 1 airship port.

Type 1 airship port.

Type 2:

The next level of airship port is most likely bigger, to accommodate more airships.   There will be nearby hydrogen production, from factories or chemical plants.  Larger warehouses, more complete maintenance and logistics capabilities.

Type 2 port attached to regional air transit hub.

Type 2 port attached to regional air transit hub.

Type 3:

The final type will have large hangar facilities for complete repairs.  Larger administrative and logistics buildings to house the staff for this airship hub.  On site hydrogen production is a possibility.

The Airship:

Segmented rigid shelled airship.

Segmented semi-rigid shelled airship.

Still in the early research and sketching phase.  The design will depend largely on the real needs of the people and the system.

How will people on the ground interact with it?

Need it land at all?

How will it be outfitted for different missions? For example, the different needs of a rescue versus food drop mission.

How will it serve different organizations?  Medecins Sans Frontieres vs Oxfam vs Red Cross vs UN?


50 ton capacity. (based on a study by Boeing, which concluded that 50 tons was the optimal balance between capacity the logistics of freight sorting)

Rigid outer shell – loose carbon weave with neoprene impregnated polyester fabric.

Electroactive polymer(artificial muscle) controlled flight surfaces(rudders, shell segments).


“Hydrogen is the lightest of the elements with an atomic weight of 1.0. Liquid hydrogen has a density of 0.07 grams per cubic centimeter, whereas water has a density of 1.0 g/cc and gasoline about 0.75 g/cc. These facts give hydrogen both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that it stores approximately 2.6 times the energy per unit mass as gasoline, and the disadvantage is that it needs about 4 times the volume for a given amount of energy. A 15 gallon automobile gasoline tank contains 90 pounds of gasoline. The corresponding hydrogen tank would be 60 gallons, but the hydrogen would weigh only 34 pounds.”* via John McCarthy

Mention airships and hydrogen in the same sentence, and instantaneously the infamous image of the flaming wreck of the Hindenburg comes to mind.  Obviously this presents a clear and substantial obstacle to public acceptance, but, as the numbers above suggest, the advantages of hydrogen warrant the investigation.  It is important to note here, that hydrogen is not a fuel source, but way of energy storage.

The reasons for using hydrogen as a lift gas in an airship are threefold.

First, hydrogen is abundant.

Second, helium is not.

Third, it can be used in the propulsion as well, which counteracts the problem that airships have with burning fuel; as fuel is consumed, the airship gets lighter, losing its ability to maintain a constant altitude.  Usually when this happens some lifting gas is vented into the atmosphere to compensate, but in this case, we can avoid that.

Airbus Liquid Hydrogen Cryoplane

Airbus' Liquid Hydrogen Cryoplane

Because of an airship’s size, the volume of the hydrogen is not an issue, as it would be on a jet.


2 Responses to “Project UpLift: Airships for Humanity”

  1. Lucien Jaggi March 10, 2009 at 9:07 am #

    Dear Casey,

    Similar projects were discussed within WFP some years ago. My understanding is that transport of goods would be very cost effective. Could be a good option in the future.
    I believe the following link should be of high interest to you.

    All the best for you thesis,



  1. Transportation backbone(Update) « Caseywong’s Weblog - March 11, 2009

    […] Earlier I mentioned that Uplift would benefit from a series of bases strategically placed around the globe, to ensure prompt response to emergencies in disaster vulnerable areas. […]

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