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Back to the Future with Cargo Airship

by Ward Carroll on January 30, 2013

It looks like a blimp but technically it isn’t one because it has a rigid structure made out of ultra-light carbon fiber and aluminum underneath its high-tech Mylar skin. Inside, balloons hold the helium that gives the vehicle lift. Unlike hydrogen, the gas used in the Hindenburg airship that crashed in 1937, helium is not flammable.

The Aeroscraft is being developed by Worldwide Aeros for use as a cargo aircraft that could bring a large load of supplies into areas without a prepared landing surface.

According to an AP report posted at Military​.com, the airship functions like a submarine, releasing air to rise and taking in air to descend.  It can take off vertically, like a helicopter, then change its buoyancy to become heavier than air for landing and unloading.

“It allows the vehicle to set down on the ground. And then when we want to become lighter than air, we release that air and then the vehicle floats and we can allow it to take off,” project chief engineer Tim Kenny said.

DoD and NASA have invested $35 million in prototype testing so far, and Aeros is looking for more funding to start the next phase.  Eventually the company wants to build a full-size 450-foot-long vehicle that can carry 66 tons of payload.

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{ 83 comments… read them below or add one }

riceball January 30, 2013 at 5:09 pm

A lighter than air craft that has a rigid skin, there's already a term for those kind of aircraft, they're called zepplins.

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Gildasd January 31, 2013 at 2:50 am

Zepplins? Ahh, ain't that cute.
Please tell us about licopters and roplanes too.

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Will January 31, 2013 at 1:28 pm

A better term is dirigible. The 2 words have the same meaning, but "zeppelin" is a reference to Imperial Germany's Graf Zeppelin.

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Jsmith February 1, 2013 at 12:55 pm
Jeff January 31, 2013 at 1:45 pm

Its PR… use the "Z" word and your program goes the way of the Hindenberg.

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Dfens January 31, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Too bad this one hasn't. The first time I worked on one of these was 1995. It was a stupid idea then and hasn't got any better since.

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blight_ January 30, 2013 at 5:13 pm

66 tons is a little unrealistic for an airship. For perspective, this 450 foot monster is more than twice the length of a C-17, but the plus side is it can deliver cargo without a long, properly graded runway.

You need a huge volume of gas of lower density than surrounding air to deliver 66 tons: The precise amount you need is the delta-mass between helium in the canopy and mass of gondola and cargo versus the equivalent volume of outside air.

Maybe it will come with some kind of lifting body to help keep it aloft in flight, or perhaps use tilt-rotor props to apply an upwards force to aid in keeping it aloft?

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Belesari January 30, 2013 at 11:46 pm

There are props facing down. Really thesea are heavier than air just the system makes it very efficent to lift.

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blight_ January 31, 2013 at 7:40 am

Images don't show it, hence my tiltrotor comment. It just shows pushers

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Musson January 31, 2013 at 9:49 am

The rotors are obscured by the guy in the Rocketeer costume!

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Menzie January 31, 2013 at 3:17 pm

Helium is lighter than air. The extra wt. of the airframe and lifting body is counteracted by more helium. Uncompressed and recompressed to maintain lift.

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Menzie January 31, 2013 at 3:14 pm

Everything you mentioned about the 450foot dirigible is true but I am mystified as to your point.
Yes it takes a huge volume of gas, yes it is 2x the length of a C17…..and you mean….?? We have built far more seemingly impossible things. I fail to see what the problem here is. Especially sinceit has been done before with hydrogen. You have large volumes of compressed gas, need to go up, realease them into the baloons, need to go down? recompress the gas into the tanks. Nothing complicated, Helium is a relatively cheap gas. (Relatively since the government has been artificially setting the price for decades) Not sure what your complaint is, but maybe it wasn't a complaint just an observation. If so then yes you are correct.

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blight_ January 30, 2013 at 5:16 pm
Cthel January 30, 2013 at 6:01 pm

Or, they could just use balonets like blimps do.

Why bother trying to reduce the volume of helium inside the envelope with chemistry, when you can just compress it using a normal balloon and high pressure air?

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Menzie January 31, 2013 at 3:20 pm

No, it is rather simple. Uncompressed, the helium gives the lift they want, if they want to go down the take some of the gas and recompress it into storage cylinders. Thats why you can have a cylinder of helium for kids baloons and fill thousands of them till the tank gets lifted.

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3rd grader January 31, 2013 at 4:26 pm

helium's a noble gas, its not going to catalyze or be bound with anything, thats basic chemistry.

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blight_ January 31, 2013 at 4:32 pm

I was thinking hydrogen, since we are working on hydrogen sequestration for hydrogen powered cars. It's also a better gas than helium, though it has interesting problems of its own.

Helium storage will require high pressure tanks, which add weight.

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crackedlenses January 31, 2013 at 5:33 pm

The idea of hydrogen as a fuel or in airships has always made me nervous. Bad habit of reacting violently with unfortunate effects on its surroundings.

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SJE February 1, 2013 at 1:35 pm

You can have an internal bladder of hydrogen which is safe since it surrounded by helium. You have to have the correct H2/O2 ratio to get an explosion.

Roy Smith January 30, 2013 at 6:11 pm

I like the idea of having an airship that can move heavy equipment like main battle tanks,but I also see,if this actually comes into being,a GIGANTIC slow moving target just begging the enemy to “shoot me down.” You need either absolute control over the skies to prevent enemy aircraft from shooting it down(& you need defensive counter-measures against mobile anti-air missiles or mobile anti-aircraft guns),or you need to paint a gigantic “bulls eye” target on it.

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Skygod 225 January 30, 2013 at 6:41 pm

A slow moving target that the enemy can shoot down…Hell I wanted to shoot down the Areostat balloon over the closest FOB when I was in Bdad…it was just begging for some MA Deuce action…

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Belesari January 30, 2013 at 11:45 pm

They get shot all the time. Because the outside preassure isnt that much less than inside they dont do much. Infact they will self heal.

Welcome to the future boyo.

Oh and wait till the get the super heavy apportion a bit of that for anti missile defensive systems…

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Musson January 31, 2013 at 9:47 am

You could fly a F-15 right through this balloon and the balloon would just keep on going. It will take a lot of holes to force it down.

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Jacob January 30, 2013 at 10:53 pm

Could still be useful for logistics far from the front lines.

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blight_ January 31, 2013 at 11:42 am

If they ever figure out that GPS-guided paradrop pallet…they could theoretically drop one in a designated dropzone.

Wouldn't want to drop ammunition that way though…but I suppose it beats the old school "drop pallets by parachute, they float away and are picked up by the enemy"

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Guest January 31, 2013 at 2:23 pm

I believe the "JPADS" system that's basically what you described is currently in service, though I'm not sure how prevalent it is yet.

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blight_ January 31, 2013 at 2:29 pm

http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?storyID=12304157

First drop in 2007. I'm debating if it means the item is in general service yet.

Musson January 31, 2013 at 4:19 pm

You could always drive a fuel truck through Pakistan.

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blight_ January 31, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Sounds like fun.

Edit: I guess some Blackwater (or whatever they call it) guys could hang out in the back. Let's call it Death Road Truckers: Khyber Pass

XYZ January 31, 2013 at 11:21 am

Full-size version carries 66 tons of payload… An Abrams is 67. As my instinct told me when I started reading this, there's a huge size-payload ratio. And this thing would be friggin huge to be able to carry more than one Abrams. That said, 66 tons for an airship is a lot.

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Joe_Sovereign January 31, 2013 at 2:09 pm

A previous DARPA program had a goal of a final production airship that could carry 450 tons.

What do you think the giant silent black triangular UFOs that have been reported are? The are black budget airships that have been flying for 20 years.

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Tom January 31, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Yeah, using a gigantic slow moving airship that can't defend itself to move cargo is as dumb an idea as using a gigantic slow moving sea vessels that can't defend itself, I'm sure the military wouldn't do either of those.

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Dfens January 31, 2013 at 2:28 pm

More corporate welfare for defense contractors. It costs too much to hire engineers that know how to design fast moving aircraft, so they keep going backward in technology because any idiot could design one of these. Who knows, after 30 or 40 years, they might even get it to work — until it rains hard.

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Cruising Troll June 5, 2013 at 1:44 pm

What part of "no prepared landing area" escapes you? The purpose of these things is heavy lift into remote areas at a much lower cost than operating helicopters. They aren't combat aircraft.

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Sean February 5, 2013 at 1:49 pm

We already have air superiority, and all of the defensive measures well in place.

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C-Low January 30, 2013 at 9:47 pm

Compress it. Compressed gas tuns into liquid and goes heavier than air rather than the lighter than air gas. Decompressing the liquefied gas would lose weight and gain lift. Either way you lose no product and just go back and forth with the material state.

The proposals still have some lift from forward motion so the air ship will still be moving over a hundred miles an hour at 20k feet the weapons able to reach it will be limited. The gas sacks divided up would mean it would take allot of fire to bring her down and even if it would be a slow decent less impact than a auto rotation of a helicopter. Ohh and those same weapons if they made hits on say a C-17 would be allot more destructive. Either way we are talking a behind the lines resupply type system not made for assault.

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Giovanni May 31, 2014 at 10:52 am

The idea to use this flying whale for military transport is completely insane. It would be an irresistible flying bull eye for the enemy to shoot it down in a theater of war. I was the developer of the Hybrid Airship platform for the purpose of suppressing major forest fires, then using the same platform for mechanized re-forestation. However in addition to static lift you need dynamic lift for optimum control and safety.

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tiger January 30, 2013 at 10:00 pm

As there are few Air ship hangers, Is this located at Lakehurst by any chance?

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6113 January 31, 2013 at 7:35 am

No, it's at Tustin.

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blight_ January 31, 2013 at 7:42 am

As in Tustin CA? I remember seeing something that looked like it could hold airships in LA..

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6113 January 31, 2013 at 10:11 am

Yeah, as in MCAS Tustin. That's where the blimp hangars are.

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blight_ January 31, 2013 at 11:46 am

Rechecking it, it looks like it's close to SNA (Santa Ana Airport, John Wayne Airport).

I could've sworn there was another structure that looked like these in Los Angeles…

Phono January 31, 2013 at 6:38 am

the problem with zeppelins and lighter than air technology is, that is has no resilience against the wind. Usually it has to much surface and to less weight to be controlable in strong winds.

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zivbnd January 31, 2013 at 5:53 pm

Hence the carbon fiber and aluminum skeleton, the first of which which wasn't financially feasible just a decade or two ago. They seem to have a reasonable shot at producing a vehicle that can do amazing things, but it will still be too expensive given todays budget constraints.

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Dfens January 31, 2013 at 7:03 am

Oh look, a missile magnet! Unsurvivable, can't operate in bad weather, f'ing expensive to design, build, and operate. What a great way to waste billions of your tax dollars. They cancelled the SR-71so they can build these pieces of crap? Brilliant.

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Guest January 31, 2013 at 10:50 am

Heavy lift cargo, ASW operations, maritime surveillence, AEW, AWACS….

What's not to like?

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Guest January 31, 2013 at 12:22 pm

This is an offshoot of DARPA's Walrus program from a few years ago. It actually compresses air into tanks for ballast. This counters the lift that the Helium provides. The body provides some lift. It is much more flattened than a dirigible. The engines are turbines optimized for electrical generation and located within the body of the craft. The props are driven by electric motors. I imagine the exhaust from the turbines could provide some push also.

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zivbnd January 31, 2013 at 5:57 pm

I think it actually compresses the helium in the balonets, allowing air to flow into the space between the balonet and the mylar, hence decreasing lift, which can be counteracted by either using the 6 downward mounted turbo fans, rotating the lift props upward, or releasing the compressed helium back into the balonet. Plus, the body of the aircraft itself forms a lifting surface of sorts. Kind of slick.

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Guest January 31, 2013 at 12:40 pm

The balloon system that Richard Branson and two others used years ago used the same basic principle. It did not take much compression of the air to control altitude to stay within a given air current from the looks of that design.

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elportonative77 January 31, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Imagine this thing carrying 1500 metric tonnes and going 150 knots! It would be able to go from Travis AFB to Japan in a little over a day. Now imagine a flight of four doing this. Talk about rapidly deploying forces.

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Dfens January 31, 2013 at 1:29 pm

Now imagine they hit a storm over the Pacific. 6,000 metric tonnes of cargo at the bottom of the ocean. Not with my tax dollars!

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elportonative77 January 31, 2013 at 1:52 pm

Oh come on. Say a CRAF aircraft with 300 men ends up on the bottom of the Pacific or a fully loaded MSC ro-ro springs a leak end up on the bottom of the Pacific. Then what? Sh*t can happen but hey that's life. I think DARPA, DoD and NASA are making a good move by investing in this aircraft and concept.

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Dfens January 31, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Commercial and military transport aircraft fly over the weather at Mach 0.8, not through it at Mach 0.01.

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elportonative77 January 31, 2013 at 2:18 pm

And what about the ro-ro? Who's to say that CRAF aircraft isn't some 23 year old workhorse which has seen one too many pressure cycles?

guest January 31, 2013 at 4:15 pm

Global helium shortage…

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CJHFl January 14, 2014 at 12:31 pm

And the US is closing the Strategic Helium Reserve.

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Prodozul January 31, 2013 at 8:38 pm

Apparently this thing is going to be in the new dlc of Battlefield 3

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Robert C February 1, 2013 at 8:59 am

I wonder if this concept will survive the Sequester coming up.

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Curt February 2, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Since R&D has been funded primarily by the Oil and Mining Industry, I don't see it being an issue.

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Belesari February 2, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Except these would make it possible to set up oil rigs and supply them in very remote places and do a host of things far cheaper. And actucally I and every american tax payer funds R&D.

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Belesari February 2, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Really is funny how little people know about this type of technology.

Oh and the Irony of people flaming how its gonna get destroyed but the 1.5+ billion dollar San Antonio's are like freaking ninja's and no sub or ASBM is EVER going to sink one.

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Roy Smith February 2, 2013 at 4:10 pm
Belesari February 3, 2013 at 12:12 am

Because if your enemy is poping out nukes then it doesnt matter the war goes nuclear and its over.

The renditions are just the fetish of the artist they want sexy and badass. Im sure you can find pics of C-17's dropping troops off while being shot at by tanks.

Also the majority of missiles will go through the bladders without detonating. Same for rounds. If we followed your pov then no blackhawk, chinook, or anything else can go into a area with ANYONE in it.

Also consider. This thing will be able to haul tons of people. What type of defensive armament could it mount.

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Roy Smith February 3, 2013 at 2:04 am
Dfens February 4, 2013 at 11:01 am

You don't need to guide a missile to hit one of these. They are just naturally drawn to it.

Chuck February 3, 2013 at 3:15 pm

What's going on in the comments here? Do people think all military airlift goes to hostile territory? I'll bet 99% of military airlift is through non-contested territory.

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blight_ February 4, 2013 at 10:39 am

There's two ends of a speed and payload spectrum. On one end is ships, which are slow and can deliver plenty of payload. On the other is fixed-wing aircraft with superior turn-around, but high cost and relatively low payload. The prototype will do 66 tons, which is on par with aircraft, but if it can do so at cost it frees up a lot of our airlift for missions where speed is more important than eventual delivery.

If they can push it to 450 tons, then things get more interesting. Imagine pushing 450 tons of supplies from Diego Garcia to Saudi Arabia if it can be done faster than ships and it can be dropped directly in the desert, instead of going to a port or RO-RO and moving overland to destination.

The other interesting option may be for the Navy, if some resupply missions can be done by airship. If UNREP can be done by airship…

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Dfens February 4, 2013 at 11:07 am

Sure, that's why we design cargo aircraft to go as low and slow as possible. They are actually harder to shoot down when we do that. In fact, if we TRY to make them really huge and limit them to flying low and slow that's the ideal every airplane designer strives for. If only we'd realized that filling them full of "lighter than air" gasses makes them completely invincible,,, Maybe we could make all our weapons huge and slow and full of gas. Wow, it just gets smarter every damn time I say it!

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Rob February 4, 2013 at 9:44 am

Couldn't they fly above most weather? With the right engines, doppler, SATNAV, you can run an automated cargo train using high altitude winds for an assist. I wouldn't put troops up at 65,000, but I'd put heavy equipment, base components, UCAVs; reinforced comms, sensor arrays and relays, etc.

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Dfens February 4, 2013 at 11:11 am

Sure, they can go waaaaay high, but the payload fraction goes waaaaay low. Plus you know they're coming for days instead of hours. What a bonus.

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chaos0xomega February 11, 2013 at 10:25 am

Personally, I think this would make the Navy largely obsolete (assuming the AF gets with the program and gets on board with this). Traditional and Hybrid rigid-body airships are cheaper, more efficient, and have lower operating costs than any ship out there (or for that matter, plane). Depending on design they can reach ridiculously high altitudes, and stay aloft for extended periods of time.

Besides their applications of moving large amounts of cargo long distances in a relatively short amount of time, and using it as an ISR platform, imagine replacing the P-3 and P-8 fleets with a handful of airships carrying rocket-assisted torpedoes and advanced sub-detection suites, remotely operated from shore facilities? If they can demonstrate reliability, they could be utilized as an element of the nuclear triad (quadrilateral?). AWACS? Yep. Missile shield/"bomb truck"? Yep. And so on and so forth. As long as you avoid the hydrogen, they are more survivable than any other aircraft out there…

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Ping February 15, 2013 at 10:47 pm

Compression of the helium into a smaller, yet still gaseous volume is the trick i think. Taking it all the way to liquid would be way too energy intensive. Describing it as letting air in only accounts for the constant volume of the aerodynamic structure. That flattened structure also has a greater dynamic body lift in forward motion than the tubular sectioned standard airship. Interestingly the parallels to submersible boats brings to mind one of the very first such craft built by Cornelius Drebbel in the 1600's. It reduced its sealed volume somewhat like an accordion using jacks to allow it to sink with air under somewhat increased pressure.

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elportonative77 January 31, 2013 at 1:18 pm

The only thing remotely close to the size of these hangars in Los Angeles proper are the hangars in which the Spruce Goose was built. They're located in Playa Vista, a little neighborhood to the north of LAX. But, 6113 is right, these hangars are located at MCAS Tustin which is being developed into the Orange Country Great Park and some housing developments.

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Dfens January 31, 2013 at 2:07 pm

Oooh, a sergeant. Wow. Do they teach sergeants about radar cross sections or missile firing solutions? Apparently not.

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oblat February 1, 2013 at 6:59 am

> It's made of Mylar, so the aluminum parts underneath reflect radar waves,

'metalised' mylar – i has a radar cross section of a blimp LOL

There is a little rule of thumb that VCs use to assess a technology. If the proponent says it has lots of military uses its usually a bad idea. If the marines are interested then its retarded.

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Dfens January 31, 2013 at 3:46 pm

The fatigue properties of aluminum used in the construction of large pressurized aircraft are well understood, as are the reasons these slow moving behemoths were abandoned 100 years ago. Not knowing anything about physics or engineering does not mean the rules don't apply.

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elportonative77 January 31, 2013 at 4:40 pm

Whatever man. You keep dodging the Ro-Ro question (this is the third time I have brought it up), you refuse to see the POTENTIAL advantages of this concept . Nor will you even stop to acknowledge that DARPA, DoD and NASA would not invest in this technology and bring it this far without considering the risks and accepting them as manageable. I will leave you and your fellow close minded compatriots to cling to your ideals and reluctance to change or experimentation. If you need to contact me just give me a shout at livejournal or disqus. Have a nice day.

P.S. SWA 812, SWA 2294, CAL 611, AQ 243, JAL 123.

Again, even though the fatigue properties of aluminum used in the construction of large pressurized aircraft are well understood sh*t still seems to happen oddly enough.

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tiger January 31, 2013 at 5:16 pm

Now be nice.

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crackedlenses January 31, 2013 at 5:35 pm

They apparently don't teach retired defense contractors about those things either…..

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Dfens February 1, 2013 at 8:50 am

Normal cargo carrying vehicles crash sometimes, seldom enough that it's big news when they do. These hindenburg things will be destroyed by bad weather. It's not a matter of they might be. They will be. And they move too slow to avoid the weather.

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Dfens February 1, 2013 at 8:57 am

The great thing is they can be hit with completely unguided rockets. If you can hit Israel with a rocket, you can hit one of these.

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tiger February 2, 2013 at 12:02 am

Hmmm…. I smell a Top Gear road trip in the making. Clarkson & the boys Drive from Islamabad to Kabul! Can't be any more wacky than the Convertible trip through the Mid East. Or the Cycle trip in Vietnam.

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Marcus March 26, 2014 at 8:17 am

by Lisa Rupp for Creature Comforts, photo of room full of balloons by Brittany Esther via Green Wedding Shoes, multi-colored poppy buoeuqt from Wedding Style Guide Row 2: cake table with balloons by Amy Atlas,

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