France is joining the global cargo airship race with the Flying Whale blimp. Unveiled this week, the 150 m long lighter-than-air airship is designed to transport lumber from deep woodland inaccessible by other means. Flying Whales, the company behind the pioneering project has already secured about 200 million euros in capital. Its main backers include the French state fund Bpifrance, which recently invested 25 million euros, and AVIC, China’s main aerospace manufacturer. As reported by Bloomberg, the company plans an initial public offering in 2021, when a blimp prototype is scheduled to make its maiden flight.

According to CEO Sebastien Bougon, Flying Whales operates on a solid base and the company relies on low-risk prospects outside of the wood market segment. In the coming decade, Mr Bougon envisages prospective sales totalling 5 billion euros from up to 150 airships built in France and China.

Airship twice as long as a Boeing 747

Flying Whale will be approximately twice as long as a Boeing 747. In a strict sense, it is not a blimp but more of a traditional Zeppelin as its specifications include a rigid structure fitted with individual pockets of helium, an arrangement which will enable an optimised aerodynamic shape. It will be based on hybrid electric distributed propulsion based on multiple propellers powered by compact and energy efficient diesel or electric engines.

Other major features include load re-distribution in flight, large cargo hold and under sling capacity of up to 60 metric tons. According to its developers, the manned airship could be relatively easy transformed into a completely unmanned drone. When it comes to the size and specs, the closest from its competitors comes the Russian Atlant 100 developed by Augur-RosAeroSystems.

The Russian blimp has a comparable size and will have the same payload with a maximum range of 2000 km. Its flying prototype is slated to be completed late this year. Nonetheless, the hangar-free Atlant 100 would still require landing pads to operate and at least initially will not be commercially available as it was commissioned by Russia's Ministry of Defence.

Cargo airships: promising market niche riddled with failure

The aerospace industry already saw multiple attempts to revive the airship. One of most ambitious was made by the German Cargolifter AG, which sought to develop an LTA aircraft with a 160-ton payload but the project resulted in failure in 2002. The ongoing projects include LMH-1 and a comparable ship originally designed by Northrop Grumman that is currently being developed in the UK by Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd. Both of these designs originated from an earlier failed project to develop a military blimp for surveillance operations in Afghanistan. HAV Airlander 10 is currently the world’s largest aircraft with its total length of 90 m and an elliptical profile that earned it the “Flying Bum” moniker.

The unusual British hybrid airship is designed to be capable to take off and land like a conventional airplane, yet using traditional mooring caused its latest model to suffer setbacks in 2016, when it crashed-landed after its mooring lines became entangled in power lines, and again last year after it broke free of its mooring pylon in gusty conditions.