Look! Up in the Sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a – blimp?

Fuels |  3 min. read

So if you hear the word “blimp”, and you think overhead shots at a game…

…well, that’s true.  And for many years, that was the whole truth.  Not anymore though.  Blimps are now the new big thing.  Literally.

But before we get all carried away about the blimps of tomorrow, let’s stop for some quick blimpology.

What IS a blimp?  Basically, it’s a VERY big balloon.  It doesn’t have a frame, so it gets and keeps its shape from the gas inside it.  An engine and propellers move it through the air, and underneath the balloon, there’s a little (or big) gondola for people and cargo.

When was the first blimp?  The name came later (see below), but the first “powered balloon” took to the air in 1852, in France.

 Why is it called a blimp?   Ah.  Some say the name is a World War One marriage of its generic British nickname, “limp bag,” with the one of the blimps of that day, the Type B model (B-limp, and very modern that would be).  Others say, that “blimp” is a made-up word, made up because it sounds like the sound of a finger scraping over the fabric of the balloon (if you ever get close enough to test that out yourself, let us know what you think).

Blimps:  Past, Present and Next-Up.  During the two World Wars, blimps were well used for various military missions (like submarine hunting).  Since then blimps (like Goodyear’s) are mostly used for overhead shots at sporting events and publicity.  Until now.

And what’s the good news about the return of the blimp?  Turns out they can do things that no other form of transportation can.  Blimps, and other types of “airships”, are extremely fuel-efficient, can stay in the air for days, and can pick up/deliver cargo almost anywhere.

They don’t need runways or any kind of airport.  They can pick up something exactly where it is (a load of timber in the middle of a forest), and drop something precisely where it is needed (a wind turbine on the side of a mountain).  It’s even been proposed, for example, that a blimp or blimps could fly in to be a “cellphone tower in the air” – for example, if a natural disaster like a hurricane knocked out towers on the ground.  And of course, as you know if the Goodyear blimp has ever been in your town for a game – if it’s drifting about overhead, you just have to stop and look up.

So the blimp of tomorrow?  Lockheed-Martin is working on one.  It will be about the length of a football field, and can deliver about 20 tons of cargo.  And being a blimp, it can make that delivery just about anywhere – since it just drops (gracefully) straight down, onto “air cushions”, which means it can land on rough terrain, or even on water.  Here’s a look at an early version:

Across the ocean in the UK, they are working on a version nicknamed the “flying bum”…

…umm, yeah.

Also in Europe, the French are building a “Flying Whale” – twice as long as a 747, and able to carry 60 tons of…well, almost anything.  And it can pick up or drop off its cargo from up in the air, winching its load up or down – so there’s no need to land to do its job.  (Technically, this is an “airship”, because it does have an internal frame.)

And those are only some of the blimps and airships being built, tested and flown around the world.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Boeing is building a whale of its own.

The Echo Voyager is actually a self-driving submarine, that can stay underwater for months at a time (top that, Uber or Lyft or Waymo!) – and is being developed for civilian exploration of the sea bed, and for various military uses as well.

And most of these blimps, airships, and even self-driving submarines – different as they are – share two things.

One, building them in the first place, is made possible by the advanced polymers made from petrochemicals, such as propylene, benzene and xylene – materials that are light, strong, durable and often easier to produce and to test.

Two, they are powered by something tried and true – the internal combustion engine, usually running on diesel (though they sometimes also have an electric power source as well).

Something old, something new, something borrowed (the blimp), something blue (sky) – petrochemicals and fuels have been at the heart of industry for the past century, and they are leading the way to innovative technologies in the new century.

Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you.