Hybrid Air Vehicles' new aircraft is not technically a blimp. Nor is it a zeppelin, a craft that saw its end with the Hindenburg explosion in 1937 (and a rebirth, of sorts, in the proto-heavy-metal band's name). But it's at least a little of both—a (fittingly) "hybrid air vehicle," or HAV, a mix of airplane, airship, and hovercraft. Hybrid Air Vehicles is attracting business by offering surveillance models (which can fly nonstop for weeks) as well as cargo models (which can tote up to 200 tons). Military contractor Northrop Grumman recently inked a $517 million deal with the firm for its surveillance vehicles, which Northrop will develop for military deployment. Meanwhile, HAV's cargo ships, which the company says are cheaper than comparable airplanes, will debut in northern Canada, where Discovery Air has agreed to pay $3.3 billion for as many as 45 ships outfitted for oil and mining transport.
The HAV's hovercraft system usually pushes the ship upward. But when the system's direction is reversed, the ship is pulled down to earth. If the vessel is carrying less than 25 tons, it lands like a helicopter, moving straight down to the ground.
Helium and the HAV's shape keep the ship aloft. Gone are the cigarlike zeppelins of yore. The HAV is sculpted like a "fat wing." That aerodynamic shape also provides 40% of its lift.
The lacquer-coated cotton and linen used for the Hindenburg's exterior proved highly flammable. The HAV's skin is made from a tough, resilient fabric that can last up to 15 years.
In the early 20th century, dirigibles were guided by ground crews and docked at giant mooring masts. Thanks to their ability to fly like airplanes—and to land almost anywhere, including on water—HAVs can serve as passenger shuttles, landing in empty parking lots to ferry hundreds (or thousands) of passengers.
5 PRESSURE-STABILIZED HULL
The HAV is filled with helium, which is lighter than air and generates 60% of the vessel's lift. The hull pressure is nearly the same as the air outside, so if you poke a hole through it, the gas inside doesn't come hissing out.
Two forward and two aft engines guide the aircraft. They also make for a fuel-efficient flight—the HAV burns as little as a quarter of what an airplane uses. The downside: It tops out at a leisurely 120 mph. A New York to L.A. trip could thus take more than 20 hours.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.