Around the World on Solar Lift

French company Euro Airship plans to begin building its Solar Airship One in 2024, with an unrefueled circumnavigation planned for 2026.

The rigid airship will be powered during the day by the energy collected via solar film covering its top half. [Credit: Euro Airship]

Around the world in 20 days—or 30—by solar- and hydrogen-powered airship? It’s a fantastic project—and not a fantastical one—that lies ahead of the Euro Airship team as it pursues the development and launch of the Solar Airship One. The French company intends to build and launch the innovative design in its quest toward a zero-emissions future.

The path to get there? By creating a rigid airship—that’s one in which a “double” envelope holds a cushion of air all around to maintain consistent pressure, and it’s encased by panels as opposed to being a flexible bag of gas. Supporting the primary envelope there is a rigid aluminum structure and inside of that are 15 helium envelopes. These independent envelopes are managed via software, taking into account changes driven by variables such as the weather.

Solar Airship One will be powered by green alternatives to fossil fuels. The airship proposed would normally have a range of 1,000 kilometers (540 nm), but by layering the top half of the envelope with solar film from which to draw energy by day—and packing hydrogen fuel cells to deliver juice to the airship’s motors at night—the pilots plan a nonstop, unrefueled circumnavigate about the equator.

The team behind Euro Airship knows it’s an audacious goal, but the whole point of exploration is to dare such leaps in capability and application of technology.

Timely Eco Targets

EuroAirship’s project to build the Solar Airship One ticks off several timely and compelling targets. “The goal is to educate, to catalyze the young generation, for us it is very important because of the climate change, because of the natural disasters coming,” said Euro Airship crew and French aerobatic pilot Dorine Bourneton in an interview with FLYING in June at the Paris Air Show, along with Marie-Christine Bilbow, CEO of Euro Airship, and Jean-Claude Thonier, director of communications for Euro Airship. “That we need to have a new mobility—a green mobility.” Mobility is a touchpoint for Bourneton, who became the first paraplegic aerobatic pilot following an aircraft accident in which she was seriously injured.

Euro Airship has also engaged the logistics team that managed the round-the-world balloon flight of Bertrand Piccard. Former space shuttle astronaut and French Air Force pilot Michel Tognini will serve along with Piccard and Bourneton, as the trio of pilots required to be crew for the equatorial circumnavigation. The planned flight will cover 40,000 kilometers (21,598 nm) and take 20 to 30 days—and fly at an average altitude of 6,000 meters (19,685 feet).

Through the end of the year, the team will focus on completion of the preproduction planning and obtaining of sponsorships that it has been at work on for three years. In 2024, Euro Airship begins construction of Solar Airship One, and in 2025, the final assembly. Then, in 2026, the team hopes to have its permit to fly, departing on the round-the-world tour once granted its initial experimental certification.

Following the tour, Euro Airship intends to go after full type certification based on the technology proven on the mission. “The good thing is that we’re not doing this world tour flight just for an exhibition or for an adventure…there is [an] additional process after that for our technology,” said Bourneton, which she said is destined to support a carbon-neutral future. “We’ve been working for the last 20 years in R&D, and we self-financed [it]. Since July 2020, we signed a partnership with Capgemini, and they are helping to develop the industrialization phase.” That includes engineering, manufacturing, and the digital twin that will be used in production. Euro Airship is also working with Safran, mainly on the electric motors for the airship.

And the market it intends to pursue? First, the ecotourism space, followed by surveillance—primarily for militaries. “We can be at 6,000 meters, and we can use it without a crew, and stay up for [a long time],” said Bourneton. Because the energy is renewed each 24 hours the airship can remain aloft perpetually.

The third market Euro Airship will go after is logistics because the airship is projected to be capable of carrying very heavy payloads. While this has some military application, the company also sees  it providing support in the event of natural disasters. The airship can also help access places where transportation infrastructure—like roads—is scant.

Regardless of the mission in which the airship is used, the adventure that will kick it all off is certain to be worth watching.

Based in Maryland, Julie is an editor, aviation educator, and author. She holds an airline transport pilot certificate with Douglas DC-3 and CE510 (Citation Mustang) type ratings. She's a CFI/CFII since 1993, specializing in advanced aircraft and flight instructor development. Follow Julie on Twitter @julieinthesky.

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