In the wake of the devastating Typhoon Haiyan, countries such as the U.S. and Japan have attempted to get aid to the Filipino residents who are injured, displaced, and/or in need of food and water. The problem, though, is that the aid can’t get there fast enough. Even after the Tacloban airport reopened, planes can only land there intermittently, due to restrictions on the number of flights allowed in and out. Fuel shortages and other logistical difficulties, including damage to the airport itself, are also hampering relief efforts. Over the past week, headlines have generally looked like this: “Nothing Is Happening.” So while people continue to try and find ways into the devastated cities, others are looking further into the future to identify strategies for preventing a bottleneck of disaster relief. One idea getting a lot of consideration right now is a hybrid aircraft.
Such a craft, otherwise known as a “rigid airship,” is part helicopter and part airplane. This plane has more of a bulge than we might expect to see out of a craft designed to help rescue people. But that’s because the bulge is a reservoir for helium, which makes the craft lighter and allows it to rely less on traditional fuel. If that’s not a priority, the donut-shaped space can house cargo. There’s a propeller underneath the craft, on the belly below the bulge, which allows the craft to take off and land vertically, like a helicopter. That would be particularly useful in places such as Tacloban. The airship can also be converted into a hovercraft by attaching a skirt around the bottom to catch the air churned up by the propeller.
The hybrid plane is being developed by researchers at Latvia’s Riga Technical University and the U.K.’s Cranfield University as part of the European Commission’s Extremely Short Take Off and Landing On any Surface (ESTOLAS) project, which began in May of 2012 and has a budget just over 700,000 Euros ($942,000). The craft is currently in the feasibility-study stage and is being tested in high-wind conditions and will later undergo testing of its radio-controlled capabilities. One of the initial concerns is that, if the belly of the plane is filled with helium, the ship might experience draft. Previous designs for hybrid crafts were also not completely stable, but the engineers in this case aren’t too worried about that aspect.
This isn’t the first prototype of a hybrid craft or a rigid airship. GFR reported a couple of months ago on a new aluminum airship being developed by Aeros corporation. Unlike the ESTOLAS craft, the aluminum Aeroscraft is lighter than air, and is being targeted for military applications. Still, there’s no reason why similar hybrid craft couldn’t be specifically designed for disaster relief, and I’d say this is a pretty helpful model to follow. And given what’s happened — or, what hasn’t happened — in the Philippines over the past week, I think it’s time to get this thing built!