Sergey Brin building humanitarian blimp for lifesaving leisure

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You may have to wait a decade or more to join him aloft

The tech billionaire’s blimp, according to The Guardian, is currently under construction at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Moffett Field in Santa Clara County, California. The space agency leased a hangar to Alphabet subsidiary Planetary Ventures in 2014 for $1.6bn over the course of 60 years.

The helium-fed balloon behemoth will reportedly be almost 200 metres long and is expected to cost $100m to $150m. It is said to have been conceived for use with hydrogen, but evidently someone recalled the fiery fate of the Hindenburg.

Moffett Field, just down the road from Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters, previously served a now-defunct commercial zeppelin business, Airship Ventures, which operated sightseeing flights from the facility between 2008 and 2012.

Lack of sponsorships and a tenfold increase in the price of helium contributed to the firm’s demise, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The failed company’s 75-metre airship, Eureka, has since been disassembled and shipped back to its maker, Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH, in Germany.

Igor Pasternak, CEO of airship company Aeros, expressed optimism about the commercial potential of airships in a phone interview with The Register.

Past airship efforts, he suggested, focused too much on niche markets. He described airships as a way to make cargo distribution direct, rather than flowing through an inefficient chain of ports and distribution points. He likened the decentralization airships can bring to the way the internet reshaped information distribution.

But it may be a while before airships fill the skies. It will take more than five years, he said. “It took a long time to get from America Online to Gmail,” he pointed out.

Tech billionaires have shown an affinity for airy ventures. Larry Page, Alphabet’s CEO and Google’s other founder, owns two flying car companies, Kitty Hawk and Zee.Aero. The two startups are competing to design personal aircraft more appealing than ultralights and more affordable than private planes.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla’s Elon Musk have focused their attention on rocketry, though Musk (who also has an affinity for tunneling) has expressed interest in electric planes.

The general public too can look forward to personal air transport, which will probably look more like Uber’s Elevate project than Brin’s floating folly. But don’t expect much for a decade or more, according to a paper published earlier this month by researchers at Duke University and NASA.

There may be some outliers – like AeroMobil, which has begun taking pre-orders to deliver a commercially available flying car in 2017. But with a price tag of at least $1.2m, the AeroMobil flying car isn’t reaching beyond the traditional private jet market.

According to the paper’s co-authors – Victoria Chibuogu Nneji, Alexander Stimpson, and Mary (Missy) Cummings from Duke, and Kenneth H Goodrich, from NASA Langley Research Center – the technology necessary for on-demand passenger air travel and the requisite regulatory framework won’t be ready for a decade or more.

As the paper recounts, prior efforts to democratize air travel have struggled with issues of cost and safety. Faced with low public interest and accidents, New York Airways, which offered helicopter transit in New York City from 1949 to 1979, couldn’t make enough money to sustain operations.

Then there’s the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS), a $69m initiative between 2001 and 2005, conceived as a joint partnership between NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration to create a market for low-cost regional aviation using jets like taxis.

Its impact was blunted by a decline in the number of private pilots, the limited number and locations of airports that handle general aviation, the challenge of air traffic management, and the high cost of aircraft, the paper explains.

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