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The massive Airlander 10 flying machine could go all-electric

The British company behind the Airlander 10 aircraft retired the prototype at the start of this year as it looked toward building a production model of what was the world’s longest flying machine.

Now, Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), which built the enormous blimp-shaped vehicle, has announced it’s planning an all-electric version after receiving a grant worth one million British pounds from the U.K. Aerospace Research and Technology Programme.

The grant, awarded jointly to HAV, Iowa-based Collins Aerospace, and the U.K.’s University of Nottingham, paves the way for the development of electric propulsion technologies using Airlander 10 as the initial platform, though more funding is likely to be needed as work progresses.

The project’s aim is to create a full-sized prototype 500kW electric propulsor suitable for a future Airlander 10, allowing the aircraft’s builders to replace its diesel-burning forward engines as the first step towards an all-electric version of the machine.

On its website, HAV notes how the Airlander 10’s combination of buoyant lift from helium, aerodynamic lift, and vectored thrust already enables it to operate with a significantly lower fuel burn than other aircraft of similar capability.

While it could take years to complete the project, HAV suggests the aircraft, which is described as part-plane and part-airship, could one day be used for a broad range of activities that include  pleasure trips, passenger travel, surveillance work, cargo transportation, and aid delivery.

Those behind the current collaboration say it shows their commitment to the future of sustainable aviation.

“Reducing our carbon footprint is one of the biggest challenges facing aviation today,” HAV chief Stephen McGlennan said in a release. “While Airlander 10 is already helping customers rethink the skies with incredible efficiency, we have to find ways of further reducing the impact we have on our environment. This project will move us closer to our goal of zero-carbon aviation.”

The prototype of the Airlander 10, which was affectionately dubbed “the Flying Bum” for its butt-shaped leading end, took six test flights in its time. Most were successful, but one ended in a crash. On another occasion, it broke free from its moorings before tearing apart.

“We are testing a brand new type of aircraft and incidents of this nature can occur during this phase of development,” the company said at the time.

With its partners, HAV now wants to build “a new breed of hyper-efficient aircraft,” though we’ll have to wait and see if the next model retains its distinctive leading end.

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