Last month, rumors surfaced that Google co-founder Sergey Brin was secretly building the world's largest aircraft in gigantic hangar at NASA's Mountain View facility. It turns out you can't keep the world's largest anything hidden for very long. This weekend, anonymous project personnel and a former engineer on the project have shared some insider details on Brin's revolutionary new flying machine.
Here's what we know now:
1. It's a blimp.
It appears the new craft is being built by a Brin-controlled company called LTA Research & Exploration, where LTA stands for "lighter than air." Strictly speaking, the new craft is a "dirigible" or "airship"--since blimps are defined as airships without a rigid exterior. Brin's new creation does have some sort of frame, which reportedly takes up most of NASA's huge hangar, but it's not clear how rigid it will be. (It turns out that not even all of the Goodyear "blimps" are actually blimps.)
2. It's over 650 feet long.
Length of this behemoth has been reported as 200 meters, which equals 656 feet. If it were completed, that would make it the biggest aircraft in the world today although airships of the 1930s, such as the Hindenberg, and the 785-foot USS Macon were longer. Like the Hindenberg, the Macon's career ended badly when the ship was destroyed by wind shear in a storm off California. It's interesting to note that it was once based in the same Mountain View hangars that Brin is now using.
3. It's helium powered.
Inside sources say that Brin would have preferred hydrogen, which is much cheaper and has more lift. Nope, says the FAA, which requires airships to have non-flammable fuel. That's a result of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, when a hydrogen-powered German airship caught fire over New Jersey, killing 35 passengers and crew, and one worker on the ground.
4. Its purpose is to deliver humanitarian supplies--and a first-class travel experience.
Brin, who is financing the project himself, reportedly wants to use it to deliver food and humanitarian supplies to remote locations. An airship is uniquely well suited for such tasks, since it requires neither roads nor airports.
Brin also wants to use it as an "air yacht," providing a better long-distance travel experience for himself and his family than a jet plane can. Traditional airships travel much more slowly than airplanes, raising the prospect of trips that are more pleasant than traditional flying, but also take longer. To combat that time suck, Brin asked aerospace engineer Alan Weston, a former NASA executive, to research options for making his craft much faster than the first generations of airships.
5. This approach could revolutionize cargo transport.
At least, that's the view of Igor Pasternak, an airship designer who was involved in early stages of this project and is now working on an airship design of his own. "Sergey is pretty innovative and forward looking," he said. "Trucks are only as good as your roads, trains can only go where you have rails, and planes need airports. Airships can deliver from point A to point Z without stopping anywhere in between," he told The Guardian.
There's a reason airships aren't already being used to deliver cargo: They have a problem with weight. Offload a ton or two of cargo that you're delivering, and you'd have to take on a ton or two of replacement weight for ballast, otherwise your airship will float uncontrollably upward, or else you have to dump some of your fuel that you might need later on. But Brin's new airship will solve that problem with a system of internal gas bladders that can control its buoyancy.
Brin's airship will reportedly cost between $100 and $150 million to build. That actually compares quite favorably with the listed price of, say, a Boeing commercial jet. If this airship works as planned--and of course that's a big if--Pasternak may be right that we'll be seeing more cargo delivered by airship or blimp in years to come.