The King of Airships — Canadian Company Takes Blimps to New Heights

Posted Feb 17, 2004 by Chris Hogg
Digital Journal — The dream of flying is age-old. In the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci drew up plans for a flying machine, but didn’t have the means to build it. In the 18th century, two such means were made available: hot air and hydrogen. In December 1783, a chemist named Jacques Alexander Charles piloted the first manned hydrogen-filled balloon in Paris. Then in 1785, inventor Jean-Pierre-François Blanchard became the first person to cross the English Channel in a balloon, carrying with him history’s first recorded piece of airmail. And eight years later, the French revolutionary army used balloons for reconnaissance, helping them emerge victorious in Fleurus, France that year. People continually tested the limits of ballooning until 1937 when 36 people died after the Hindenburg’s explosion on descent from the skies over Lakehurst, New Jersey. The tragedy was front-page news around the world and the event marked a catastrophic end to the hydrogen-filled airship. Today, 66 years after the disaster of the Titanic of the Skies, the traditional blimp has been redesigned, and the man behind it is taking air technology to new heights.
With such a thorough history in ballooning, you wouldn’t think that there is much else that can be done to such a seemingly timeworn technology. But for Hokan Colting, the work is just beginning. As Canada’s leading entrepreneur in airship design, Colting has set out to put a modern face on the traditional-looking airship. And with nine world altitude records for airships to date, Colting has built airships that have earned him more than just a spot in the Guinness Book of Records.
Hokan Colting, founder and CEO of an airship design and manufacturing company called 21st Century Airships. Photo: djc Features
Based out of Newmarket, Ont., Colting is the founder and CEO of an airship design and manufacturing company called 21st Century Airships. A self-taught airship pilot, the Swedish expatriate has been flying balloons since 1974. After decades of designing, developing and manufacturing balloons, Colting moved on to airships in 1988.
Although some people may see his airship as just a funky-looking blimp, Colting’s state-of-the-art design has drastically altered how airships look and operate. The problem with many of today’s blimps is that the technology dates back to the 1920s, with only minor touch-ups such as newer fabrics and modernized engines. Knowing that the airship world hadn’t seen any real research and development (R&D) in more than 80 years, Colting took everything back to the drawing board.
Colting faced the challenge of designing an airship that could be cheaper to operate and easier to control. He also needed to produce an airship that could do more than the traditional blimp or balloon.
An underlying problem with balloons is that they can only fly with the wind. To get maximum distance during a flight, a pilot has to change altitude to find better wind conditions, but is unable to steer.
Long, cigar-shaped airships like the Goodyear blimp rely on two fins placed at one end to guide them into the hands of a crew waiting on the ground. The fins work as the rudders because air flows over them, allowing the blimp to be steered. However, once the blimp travels below 15 km/h, there isn’t enough airflow to control the steering and the pilot loses control. This approach forces the ground crew (usually consisting of 20 to 25 people) to tug on ropes attached to the blimp to bring it to a stop. With these major shortcomings, it became obvious that the technology was inefficient and costly.
Studying everything from aerodynamics to deflection and thrust, Colting quickly learned that the primary problem with older blimps was the way fins work. By experimenting with new types of landing devices, Colting made his first step as an airship pioneer when he developed a way to steer using engines rather than air-deflecting fins. His new steering method uses a hybrid electric system that drives large, slow-turning propellers. This gives the airship helicopter-like agility by being able to move both up and down, and side to side.
The next step was the airship’s shell. Colting chose to make the outside layer, or “envelope,” out of a high-tech material called Spectra — a fabric used in bullet-proof vests and parts of space shuttles. Spectra contains fibre 10 times as strong as steel of the same weight and has the unique feature of being easy to cut but virtually impossible to tear.
The inside layer, made from a thin but strong polyester film called Mylar, is fitted inside the envelope and filled with a mixture of helium and air. Colting chose helium because it is an inert gas and is therefore not flammable. With this design, the helium expands as the airship rises, forcing air out and lifting the airship. The cycle continues, allowing the airship to gain more and more altitude until the helium has expanded to fill the envelope completely. Because the pressure is so low inside the envelope, a puncture would only result in a very slow leak, taking a long time to totally deflate.
With a new fin design and a strong shell for his airship, Colting invested years into R&D and countless hours testing radio-controlled prototypes. “Nobody really did anything new for airships in 60 or 70 years,” Colting says. “We developed and tested practical airships to get to where we are now. It really gives us a head start on other companies.”
After flying a few different archetypes, Colting made his biggest mod: He moved the gondola inside the airship, giving it a look like no other in the world. The result was the world’s biggest and most technologically advanced bubble.
With a design unique not only to Canada, but to the rest of the world, Colting really began turning heads in the airship industry. “We are superior to any competition,” Colting boasts. “There are at least 20 to 30 paper projects around the world, but nobody has really done anything practical. We’ve won the R&D airship race simply because others have failed to innovate. Theory needs to meet reality for many other companies.”
21st Century Airships holds the world record for altitude reached in an airship at 6,400 metres. Photo courtesy of 21st Century Airships
The evidence? Colting’s airship can go higher than any airship in the world; he currently holds the world record for altitude reached in an airship at 6,400 metres. Comparatively, most traditional blimps can only reach a maximum altitude of about 1,500 metres.
Taking almost eight hours to fill with helium and costing about $18,000 a pop, Colting leaves his 19-metre-diameter airship inflated for a month or two at a time. This lets him perform necessary testing before deflating it in order to make modifications or additions.
But even with 10 successful prototypes to date, Colting is still at the grind producing a bigger and better airship. He is currently setting out to build dirigible that will soar higher than anything yet. With a mammoth 40-metre diameter, Colting’s new airship will scale larger than a Boeing 737. And with a big airship, Colting has big plans: Conquering uncharted airspace by flying up to the earth’s stratosphere, 18,000 to 21,000 metres above sea level, Colting plans to go where no airship has ever been. And more important than the altitude records that he’ll break, is what he plans to do while up there.
From the stratosphere, Colting’s newly designed airship can serve as an unmanned platform for applications such as telecommunications, environmental monitoring and military surveillance. While airships can be used for sightseeing and advertising at low-level flying, high-altitude flying creates unprecedented opportunities to the world of communications.
Colting’s new stratosphere-bound airship is called a “stratellite.” A stratellite functions like a satellite, but rather than orbiting the planet, it hovers within the atmosphere.
The big difference between the two is the way they operate. Satellite-based Internet services, for example, provide easy download capabilities but have very limited two-way high-speed data communication abilities. Stratellites, on the other hand, are low enough to offer good two-way communication, and high enough to cover an area of almost 483,000 square kilometres.
And with the advent of innovations like thin-film photovoltaic solar cells (capable of producing power when exposed to radiant light) or commercially available fuel cells, a high-altitude airship can now stay airborne longer than most thought possible — potentially up to a year.
An airship that could stay airborne that long has impressive potential. Acting as a platform in the skies, a stratellite could provide everything from a wireless Internet connection, to cellular signals, to 3G/4G mobile, to fixed wireless telephony, to HDTV and more.
Just one of 21st Century’s Airships could theoretically replace every single cell phone tower in an area almost as big as the Yukon. Photo Courtesy of 21st Century Airships
For the cellular world, a stratellite could lower the costs of both operation and infrastructure. Currently, cities all over the world rely on hundreds of cell phone towers to run communication networks. However, using stratellite technology, just one airship could replace every single cell phone tower in an area almost as big as the Yukon.
Wi-Fi networks today only provide fast data transfers between computers over short distances (usually less than 300 metres). Stratellites, on the other hand, have the potential to turn an entire continent into a hotspot where one could access the Internet from anywhere.
But with Wi-Fi, cost is always the do-or-die determinant. The good news for both Internet service providers (ISPs) and consumers is that stratellite technology can provide massive savings. In order to cover the same area as one stratellite, a heavily populated area would have to erect thousands of cellular towers with wireless equipment. Sanswire, an Atlanta-based wireless Internet developer company, says that a 483,000 square kilometre area of developed land could use up to 14,000 cellular towers, and such an arsenal could cost up to $56 million (US) to build while incurring monthly tower lease charges of about $5.6 million. Using stratellite technology, Sanswire estimates that savings could be as high as $67 million annually on tower leases, while spending less than $30 million in capital costs.
Earlier this year, the United States Committee on Senate Armed Services allotted $135 million (US) to the Department of Defense for the development and acquisition of unmanned systems, including airships. Using this funding, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) wants to employ high-altitude airships to provide overlapping radar coverage of all borders approaching and surrounding the continental U.S.
Set up in early 2002, the MDA’s job is to protect the United States from any threats of ballistic missile attack. Its main function is to develop and test prototype technology to better improve the States’ homeland defence. So with a keen interest in airships and stratellites, it was only a matter of time until the U.S. government came knocking on Colting’s door.
While the idea of using airships for military purposes is not new (airships were used extensively throughout the Second World War for reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare), the U.S. military became interested in Colting’s airships because testing and research has shown that his technology is better than many competing companies.
Invited to a briefing in Washington, D.C., Colting met with the MDA and other airship companies to talk about today’s airship technology and future plans for development. The briefing was open to any company that wanted to attend, and many did show up.
One month later, Colting got a call from a U.S. official who explained that 21st Century Airships had been shortlisted and was one of two companies the MDA had particular interest in. Packing up his bags again, Colting went to meet with the MDA in a second, more exclusive meeting.
Bound and gagged by the military’s “classified” stamp, Colting couldn’t comment on any information beyond this meeting. However, Colting did say that he surprised a lot of people, including airship experts who had never seen his bubble design. “I remember sitting down for a meeting and seeing the first picture in the slide presentation,” Colting begins. “It was a big, cigar-shaped blimp. The first thing I did was stand up and ask what they planned on doing with the Zeppelin in the picture. They told me that they were planning on flying up into the stratosphere. Pointing at the picture, I said, ‘Not in that thing you’re not.’ You should have seen the looks on their faces.”
Before he helps complete the Star Wars-like project to stop run-amok renegades, Colting says that a lot more research and testing is needed. With a focus on R&D, Colting wants to push the envelope even further by testing things like solar power, fuel cells and new propulsion methods. And with a chance to show the world just what 21st Century Airships can do, Colting plans to take to the skies to attempt one feat that has never been done in an airship: fly around the world, nonstop.
The enduring journey has been completed only twice in a balloon, but never in an airship — something Colting hopes to change by spring of 2005. “With a balloon, you need a lot of dumb luck to make it all the way around the world,” Colting says. “If you do it over and over and over, you might make it once, but with airships, you have to plan it out in advance. It’s like comparing a motorboat to a sailboat.” And with the challenge that lies before him, Colting doesn’t doubt himself even slightly.
Colting believes he can make it nonstop around the globe because of the altitude at which he can fly. Soaring at an average altitude of 9,000 to 12,000 metres, Colting can fly in jet streams which make the trip both easier and faster. Jet streams are high-speed, meandering wind currents that usually move at speeds exceeding 400 km/h. With bathroom and eating facilities onboard, Colting estimates that the trip will take about two weeks to complete.
Making it around the world means Colting will break a number of current flight records, including the longest distance travelled in an airship and the highest altitude reached in an airship.
And for the technology junkies and aerial aficionados who just can’t miss seeing Colting’s record-breaking attempt, he already has a high-tech solution in place: Using broadcast-quality cameras made by Wescam, Colting plans to broadcast the entire journey. Wescam is a company that manufactures multi-spectral airborne imaging systems which, Colting says, are capable of reading a car’s licence plate from 12,000 metres up. With these cameras mounted onboard, Colting plans to broadcast live footage on the Internet using onboard computers. So with just a simple click, users can log onto a website and watch a live video feed from inside and outside of the airship.
Whether it’s a trip around the world, a platform for Wi-Fi, or part of the U.S. missile defence program, you can be sure that this Newmarket company has a bright future just over the horizon.
And even though Colting has made it this far in the blimp-making game, there are several years of tech tune-ups and pioneering prototypes ahead. Don’t go out and cancel your broadband Internet subscription just yet — it might be a few years before you can look out the window and watch your high-speed wireless ISP fly by.
21st Century Airships, Through the Years:
  • 1988: 21st Century Airships is founded by Hokan Colting.
  • 1988-90: 21st Century Airships tests radio-controlled models of airships.
  • 1991: 21st Century Airships flies its first manned prototype.
  • 1992: 21st Century Airships has set nine World Altitude Records for airships.
  • 1994: 21st Century Airships completely changes airship design by moving the flight deck inside the envelope of the airship.
  • 2001: 21st Century Airships builds a four-seated, hybrid-electric airship that can take off and land on water.
  • 2004-05: 21st Century Airships plans to be the first airship to fly around the world nonstop.
A Distance Comparison:
  • 16,760 metres: The average cruising altitude of the Concorde jet
  • 10,970 metres: The average cruising altitude of a passenger jet
  • 8,848 metres: Mount Everest is the world’s highest mountain
  • 6,400 metres: Hokan Colting’s current 21st Century Air Ship sets the record for the highest altitude reached by an airship
  • 610 metres: The average maximum altitude of hot air balloon flight
  • 553 metres: Toronto’s CN Tower is the world’s tallest freestanding structure