A tech billionaire takes to the sky with helium-filled airship

The government clears Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s Pathfinder-1 for maiden flight.

Lighter Than Air Research (LTAResearch), a California-based firm of Google/Alphabet co-founder Sergey Brin, has received official clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States for the maiden takeoff of its first airship. 

The 124-meter long dirigeable-shaped airship dubbed Pathfinder-1 has permission to make its experimental flight over the south side of the San Francisco Bay, where it won't interfere with planes flying into or out of the commercial airports of San Jose or San Francisco. The flying certificate will be valid for 12 months.

The company, which exists since 2015, said on its website that the new airship would be employed in humanitarian and relief operations in difficult-to-get-to disaster zones. 

“When we look up and ahead, we see a future where zero-emission airships can support and even speed up disaster response and relief efforts. If runways, roads, and ports are damaged, LTA’s airships can still deliver what communities need.

If cellphone towers are knocked out, airships can hover and provide service,” reads a message from the founder.

Pathfinder-1 uses non-flammable helium to roam the air rather than hydrogen, an explosive gas. It is capable of lifting a maximum load of 28 tons at an altitude of around 460 meters, which corresponds to the layer called troposphere.

The airship’s gondola can accommodate up to 14 people.

Built in collaboration with the German aircraft manufacturer Luftschiffbau Zeppelin and Slovenian aviation engine-maker Pipistrel, Pathfinder-1 is powered by 12 electric motors and can withstand winds up to 130 meters per hour. Its cruise speed is 65-75 kilometers per hour, and the maximum speed is 120 kilometers per hours. The flight range is at least 4,500 kilometers.

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Pathfinder-1’s structure consists of 13 helium bags of ripstop nylon base fabric with a urethane coating, held by 3,000 circular mainframes made of titanium hubs and multi-ply carbon fiber reinforced polymer tubes, and the cover uses a lightweight, non-flammable laminated material called Tedlar. Lidar sensors calculate the volume of helium in the gas cells to help the pilots balance the airship and track performance. Direction control is ensured by four fin rudders.

The airship was designed and built by LTAResearch in Mountain View, California. Pathfinder-1 would be the world’s largest airship to take flight since the disastrous journey of Zeppelin’s Hindenberg in 1937.

A successor named Pathfinder-3 is being constructed in Akron, Ohio.


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