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Mar. 17—Google co-founder Sergey Brin loves airships. He loves them so much that his 2012 debut for Google Glass (RIP) involved a skydiving stunt where a team of jumpers leaped out of a zeppelin floating over downtown San Francisco. So it may come as no surprise that since stepping away from Google, the ninth richest person in the world’s focus has been on exactly that: building a giant “sky yacht.”
Media first caught wind of Brin’s massive airship project inside the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View in 2017. At the time, it was all very secretive, but in the past few years, more details have emerged — and a few weeks ago, a job listing for Brin’s airship company, LTA Research and Exploration (LTA stands for Lighter Than Air) revealed even more, according to TechCrunch. Here’s everything we know about Brin’s airships.
He wants to use the airships for humanitarian aid
Although back in 2017 the word on the street was that Brin intended the aircraft to serve at least in part as a luxurious “air yacht” for his family and friends, the LTA website states only humanitarian goals: “LTA airships will have the ability to complement — and even speed up — humanitarian disaster response and relief efforts, especially in remote areas that cannot be easily accessed by plane and boat due to limited or destroyed infrastructure.”
Unlike jet planes, airships have the ability to land or deliver goods almost anywhere.
In addition, the LTA site says that their airships are intended to serve as a zero emissions alternative to airplanes, used for both shipping goods and moving people. Climate change has made airships sound more appealing to scientists in recent years — while slower than airplanes, airships are faster than cargo ships and have fewer emissions than both boats and planes. In fact, airships produce 80% to 90% fewer emissions than conventional aircraft.
They’re going to be huge — and they’re not going to be cheap
“It’s going to be massive on a grand scale,” a source told the Guardian in 2017, estimating that Brin’s airship would be about 650 feet long.
At this size, the flying machine would definitely be the world’s largest aircraft today — although it would still be smaller than the ill-fated Hindenburg zeppelin of the 1930s, which was 804 feet long. For context, that’s more than three times the length of a Boeing 747 and more than four times the length of your typical Goodyear Blimp.
The same source also told the Guardian that the airship would cost Brin as much as $150 million to construct. He currently has a net worth of more than $86 billion.
Brin’s airships will run on hydrogen
Hydrogen got a bad reputation from the Hindenburg disaster, when a hydrogen-filled German passenger airship caught fire during its attempt to dock in New Jersey in 1937, killing 36 people. Following that disaster, most airships turned to nonflammable helium as a lifting gas, even though hydrogen is much cheaper than helium and provides more than 10% more lift. But Brin embraces hydrogen.
For its newest airship, LTA is using the material — not for buoyant lift as in the catastrophic Hindenburg, but as fuel to avoid carrying heavy lithium-ion batteries. The resulting airship would still use the traditional helium to provide lift.
A recent job description posted on the LTA website revealed the company’s plans to build a 1.5-megawatt hydrogen fuel cell propulsion system (fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce water and electricity, and are often compared to batteries).
“Where we could go something like 125 miles with batteries, we should be able to go nearly 1,000 miles using hydrogen,” professor Dr. Josef Kallo of the German Aerospace Center told TechCrunch.
Such a power system would more efficiently meet LTA’s humanitarian goals, allowing its airship to carry more cargo and endure longer range missions.
Meanwhile, 1.5 megawatts would make LTA’s airship the largest ever hydrogen fuel cell to fly. The record is currently held by ZeroAvia’s small passenger plane, which is powered by a 0.25-megawatt system.
One airship has already been built
LTA’s first prototype airship, called Pathfinder 1, could be ready to take to the air from Silicon Valley as soon as this year, TechCrunch reports. According to the Daily Beast, LTA registered Pathfinder 1, which will be powered by 12 electric motors and able to carry 14 people, in 2019.
That makes it about the same size as the 246-foot-long Zeppelin NT, which offers sightseeing tours in Germany and Switzerland and is the only passenger airship currently operating. And yes, you can still do this — a ticket for a 45-minute tour costs about $450.
The flight of LTA’s first fuel cell-powered airship, however, is likely still a ways off, as such an airship has yet to be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration. — Brin’s company has certainly grabbed a lot of headlines, but let’s not forget that this is not the first time airships have been flown in California. In 2008, a company called Airship Ventures began offering sightseeing rides of a 12-passenger Zeppelin NT at Moffett Federal Airfield near Mountain View. The aircraft cruised at 35 to 40 mph and offered views of Wine Country, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle. The company folded in 2012 due to the lack of a long-term sponsor and a world helium shortage.
While Brin’s airship objectives seem strictly humanitarian, LTA also has the potential to renew interest in airships for passenger travel — particularly among climate change-conscious travelers. Floating to your destination might be a slower ride, but something about an “air yacht” sounds awfully relaxing.
Sergey Brin could not be reached for comment for this story.
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