It’s really a category that doesn’t exist for describing aircraft. The Solar Ship is being developed by a company of the same name and is designed as a heavy hauling, slow moving aircraft that can fly in and out of remote and rugged areas. Most of its lift is generated by aerodynamics, but helium can be used to enhance its ability to take off and land in confined areas.
The Solar Ship is one of the more out there ideas to come along recently, but it’s also an idea that could be as functional as it is unorthodox. The aircraft isn’t really designed to compete with jets or even propeller powered airplanes. At one end the Solar Ship is likely competing against helicopters which are very expensive to operate and have limited load carrying capacity, and at the other end it’s competing against trucks driving very slowly along primitive roads in remote corners of the world.
The company points out that the Solar Ship isn’t a lighter-than-air vehicle like a blimp or an airship. Instead it’s an inflatable heavier-than-air vehicle that can be filled with normal old air, or get that bonus performance with helium. Thrust can come from a variety of engines including electric motors that can be powered by solar cells covering the massive inflatable wing.
By generating lift aerodynamically like an airplane, the Solar Ship does not need the complex mooring and ground station of an airship, it is more stable in gusty conditions, it is more maneuverable and can carry more payload for a given size. With helium the company says the aircraft can fly in and out an area the size of a soccer field.
The aircraft is not fast. The company lists three sizes that are being developed with a top cruise speed of 75 miles per hour. But the smallest Solar Ship on the drawing board has a payload of more than 1,600 pounds and a range of almost 1,600 miles. Next up is one projected to have a payload of more than 5,500 pounds that can be carried more than 3,000 miles. The one that stretches the imagine the furthest with a payload of more than 66,000 pounds is designed for a range of more than 3,700 miles. Of course the range also translates to endurance if observation – science or military – is how you want to use any of these aircraft.
All of the Solar Ships are expected to be able to operate out of a field just 328 feet (100 meters) long. The biggest version might be a bit of a stretch at this point, though the company cites examples of being able to haul heavy loads in areas like the arctic where the transportation of goods must wait until ice roads allow trucks to drive in the winter. Other airship companies have had similar thoughts.
Other possible missions include hauling supplies to support disaster relief in developing countries, a platform for scientists to allow a quiet and near hover like observation platform with long endurance, a military observation platform with the same qualities or simply a simple people mover to connect remote outposts or villages.
The company has a small, 33 foot long version flying now. Video of some early test flights and hopes for the future below.
Images/Video: Solar Ship Inc./YouTube