"There is a real need for this," said SLA CEO Mike Kendrick. "It can cost up to $1 billion to put all the infrastructure in for an oil well." He said falling commodity prices have not hurt interest in the airships — quite the opposite, given the cost savings — and U.K.-based SLA has four or five customers ready to try out the airships whenever they're finally ready.
Kendrick used to run Richard Branson's Virgin Airship and Balloon Company, which had 19 blimps around the globe used for advertising or camera work. He was also flight director for Branson's balloon flights. He and his team formed Straightline to focus initially on delivering cargo.
What attracted SLA to the Lockheed Martin product is that the hybrid airship is heavier than air, even though it is filled with helium. Its skin and airframe weigh it down, it doesn't need mooring like a traditional blimp. Engines guide the airship into position, and on its belly are wheel-like structures that spin to let it either hover or "grip" a surface. Lockheed said this provides stability in windy conditions for loading and unloading supplies, making it much easier to operate than a lighter-than-air machine.
"The difference between lighter-than-air and hybrid airships is quite profound," said SLA's CEO. "It may seem small but it is a spectacular development."
Lockheed proved the concept a decade ago with a one-third size prototype, and it has spent years figuring out the right size and the right markets, spending more than $100 million on the project. This is also the first time that Skunk Works, a division of Lockheed Martin more famous for creating legendary military aircraft like the SR-71 and Stealth fighter, has developed something for the commercial market. The company even created a special sales and marketing arm, called Hybrid Enterprises.
There are competitors, most notably the Airlander 10 being built by U.K.-based Hybrid Air Vehicles. The Airlander was unveiled last week and labeled the world's largest aircraft, a lighter-than-air hybrid that may focus more on the tourism market.