[Update: Well, that was interesting while it lasted. Minutes after we posted the first version of this story, a Boeing representative responded to our earlier inquiry to say that the video is outdated, and the company's Phantom Works unit is no longer working on such a project. So file this one under cool concepts that aren't going to happen, at least not anytime soon. We've updated the post below.]
Boeing considered building a gigantic, buoyant “Hybrid Thermal Airship” that would have floated as high as 30,000 feet for up to 60 days at a time and deliver cargo anywhere in the world without the need for a runway or any other infrastructure — running on a combination of fuel-powered generators and an 8-megawatt solar array across the top of the ship.
As an added bonus, the airship also would have defended itself against incoming missiles with high-powered lasers, and taken out threats on the ground with destructive radio-frequency beams.
Those are some of the wild details from a Boeing video posted on YouTube over the weekend by a mechanical simulation firm — showing an airship that looks like a cross between a blimp and a shark.
“The military implications of such a vehicle are enormous,” the announcer says in the video. “Every location on the planet is now accessible for cargo pickup and delivery — from the deck of a ship to the summit of Mt. Everest, nonstop from the Continental United States.”
Boeing’s Hybrid Thermal Airship is “poised to usher in a new era of logistics,” the video promises.
The video, intended for potential U.S. military and defense customers, was available yesterday in public listings but was switched to an unlisted status this morning, available only to people who have the link. Seattle-area aerospace news watcher Isaac Alexander spotted the video before it was unlisted.
The video features a Boeing watermark and a copyright stamp of 2009, and directs viewers to Boeing’s John Skorupa for more information. We’ve left messages for Skorupa and a Boeing representative inquiring about the current status of the project.
Update: Although it appears to be the first time the project has been made public, a Boeing spokeperson said in response to our inquiry that the video is about four years old and “does not accurately reflect any current Phantom Works projects,” referring to Boeing’s advanced R&D unit.
Skorupa is one of three inventors listed on a 2008 patent application for a Hybrid Thermal Airship similar to the concept depicted in the video.
The other two inventors are Boeing engineer David Kwok and Boeing’s Blaine Rawdon, who was one of the designers of Boeing’s Pelican high-capacity cargo plane concept, previous project from Boeing’s Phantom Works. Skorupa also was associated with the Pelican project.
According to the video, the Hybrid Thermal Airship would have used a combination of permanent helium lift cells and variable hot air lift cells. The latter would be filled with “waste heat” from the propulsion system, allowing the airship to remain buoyant in the air even when carrying heavy cargo. That lets the airship to hover over a landing site, whether on land or at sea, and lower a cargo platform to the destination.
The video depicted the airship scanning its surroundings, blowing up an threatening vehicle on the ground with radio-frequency directed energy weapons “operating at terrawatt energy levels,” and blasting an incoming missile with “high-powered, solid state lasers.” It said those built-in defense systems allow the airship “to attain spherical dominance out to the radar horizon.”
At 30,000 feet, Boeing’s hybrid airship would have reached into the lower stratosphere, avoiding severe weather and taking advantage of natural wind currents. It would have been able to hover for up to two months over a specific location, or travel with a range up to 40,000 nautical miles, according to the video.
The video said the hybrid-thermal approach could be used for anything from a small sensor aircraft to “a million-pound, cargo-carrying airship.”