Inflatable aircraft have been around since the Montgolfier brothers developed the first untethered hot-air balloon in 1782, but 200 years later, they are making a high-tech resurgence for both civilian and military use. US aerospace company Lockheed Martin's version is called the P-791 airship, which it hopes is about to take off. Rob Muir reports.
REUTERS / LOCKHEED MARTIN HANDOUT - When it lumbered into the air its first successful test flight in 2006, the P-791 became Lockheed Martin's flagship entry into the resurgent airship business. After five years of further development, the company is looking for customers, and through Program Manager Bob Boyd, was hoping to find some at the unmanned vehicle industry's conference and exhibition in Washington.
LOCKHEED MARTIN P-791 PROGRAM MANAGER BOB BOYD SAYING
"Well we've got a couple of different applications, the primary one is moving cargo, cargo to remote areas, areas that don't have infrastructure, don't have airports, don't necessarily have roads, so to support mining and drilling operations, to support remote access to different applications. That's really where it's coming from."
But theres also a military application, either for transport or surveillance. Using helium inside a three-lobed hull designed to maximise aerodynamic lift, the airship can stay aloft at altitudes of up to 20,000 feet for as long as three weeks at a time. It can be equipped to give military planners a clear view of the battlefield from altitudes beyond the range of enemy missiles...and if it does come under attack?
LOCKHEED MARTIN P-791 PROGRAM MANAGER BOB BOYD SAYING: "It's not as vulnerable as one thinks, in fact airships actually do get bullet-holes periodically now. They're very low pressure so not a whole lot happens when a bullet goes through
Boyd says that with the technology established as safe and reliable, he expects to see different versions of the P-791 in appearing in remote locations around the world within ten years.
Rob Muir, Reuters.