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Buoyant, a YC graduate wants to find middle-mile delivery solutions with Cargo airships

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In recent years, a number of companies emerged aiming to revive the airship technology. This was an old technology which was lost in favour of aircrafts and helicopters.

Flying Whales in France, Hybrid Air Vehicles in the U.K., Lockheed Martin and billionaire Sergey Brin all have airship projects in development, particularly focused on carrying cargo. They have not yet begun to service customers.

Buoyant wants to be the first.

This year, the startup was awarded Y Combinator’s Startup Award. The goal is to build small unmanned airships that can move cargo middle distance. Instead of depot-to home, think depot-to depot delivery. Ben Claman, Joe Figura and Joe Figura are the founders of Buoyant. They claim they can reduce delivery costs by half compared to small aircraft or helicopter flights. They claim they will succeed in places where others failed by remaining small. Instead of creating massive airships measuring over a hundred feet and costing a great deal of capital, as well as a lot more gas to transport, Buoyant’s last vehicle will be only 60 feet.

Claman and Figura, both MIT hardware engineers, are spacecraft builders and antenna designers. They had previously worked together on projects that provided low-cost connectivity for remote areas, such as Alaska. Claman grew up in Alaska.

Image Credits: Buoyant. Buoyant founders Joe Figura and Ben Claman.

Claman stated that Joe and I were discussing the difficulty of getting actual goods into these locations. People are buying online and getting their goods delivered to these locations. Sometimes they have to wait for weeks or even months before the items arrive.

Claman said that when YC was founded, the founders had envisioned building an airship similar to the prototype they already have. This craft could be small enough to deliver last-mile Amazon deliveries, Claman stated.

We spoke to many companies and found that the rural last mile is more problematic than the rural middle mile. If you have five thousand people in your community, the postal service can be subcontracted to that person to deliver the final-mile parcels. It is really difficult and expensive to get parcels from the main hub to this place.

Buoyant created a hybrid battery-electric airship to solve this problem. It generates 70% of its lift by using lighter-than-air gases, in this instance, helium. Its tilt-rotor architecture accounts for 30% of lift. Buoyant claims that this hybrid design solves the problem of cargo drop-off. This is because airships can’t offload excess weight and risk going back into the atmosphere. The tilt-rotor allows an airship to fly closer to a helicopter when it takes off and lands.

Helicopters must be capable of lifting up to 1,500-10,000 pounds of stainless steel and carbon fiber. Buoyant’s aircraftship can lift only the payload and the airframe. Buoyant founders claim this not only saves capital but also allows the ship to run independently, meaning that no pilots will be required.

Buoyant built and flew four prototypes of airships. Buoyant’s most recent sub-scale airship went into flight at 20 feet. It has a speed of 35 MPH and a payload of 10 LBS. But the ultimate goal is to create an airship capable of carrying up to 650 lbs of cargo, traveling around 60 MPH.

Part 107 has allowed the airship to operate. The company must obtain two certifications before it can begin serving customers: the type certification that verifies the craft’s airworthiness and the operator certifications of those who fly them. “Both require a lot of flight hours, which will be our main development activity,” Figura said on HackerNews.

The company plans to keep improving its flight control system, and will do a field demonstration with the prototype sub-scale in the next few months. Buoyant plans to make a larger version of the flight control system next year. Claman stated that they would likely produce it in-house.

Buoyant will need to take these next steps in order for it to convert the $5 million worth of letters of intent that it signed with potential customers, including an Alaskan regional airline carrier, into formal contracts.

Buoyant has also two pilot programs: the first with the prototype sub-scale model this fall and the second in one year with full-scale ships in logistics/parcel delivery businesses.

Claman said that “people were building blimps prior to computers”, and people had been building them before aerodynamics was understood. Claman agreed. There is a lot data. Airship design has not stopped. Airships have been developed almost continuously for over 100 years.

Publited at Fri 27 August 2021, 12:41:04 +0000

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