Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Launch HN: Buoyant (YC S21) – Blimp drones for air freight
302 points by joefigura on Aug 23, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 173 comments
Hi, we’re Ben and Joe from Buoyant (https://www.buoyant.aero/). We build small unmanned cargo airships and use them to move air freight at half the cost per mile of a small plane.

An airship (or blimp) is an aircraft that gets most of its lift from a lifting gas like helium. It’s the most efficient way to fly, which means it’s cheaper than any other aircraft for many missions. We’re starting by building an aircraft for middle-mile air freight in remote and rural areas—warehouse-to-warehouse or post office to post office. This is a $6B market in the US alone, and freight volumes are only increasing. By building autonomous blimps, we can lower shipping costs, increase quality and speed of service, and cut out millions of tons of CO2 emissions.

So far, we’ve built and flown four airships. The latest is 20 feet long and can fly up to 35 miles per hour. Here’s a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VEYOfVcwRhk.

We’re starting in areas where freight is already moved on small planes and helicopters. In these remote areas, availability of goods is lower, shipping takes longer, and it’s more expensive. For example, food in rural parts of Alaska is twice as expensive as in Anchorage. Small air freight is particularly expensive because of the cost of fuel, maintenance, pilots, and airport infrastructure. To make major cost reductions we need a new type of aircraft.

Ben is a mechanical engineer from Alaska and grew up in the outdoors, so is familiar with the challenges of remote supply operations. He has built aircraft tracking technology for the DoD, flat panel phased array antennas, GPS data loggers for motorsports, and helped start a company that made shirts with upside down pockets. I’m an aerospace engineer who’s built and flown spacecraft at two internet satellite startups, spending a lot of time on complicated flying machines. We met at MIT and have been friends for almost a decade since.

We spent years building satellites and antennas to provide internet connectivity to rural areas, and while doing so learned about the transportation challenges in remote places. Many drone delivery projects have focused on delivering small packages in suburbs, and are too short range or low payload to serve rural areas. We realized small airships were a technical approach that could work to move cargo in these areas, and decided to tackle the challenge.

An airship is the most efficient way to fly because it gets most of its lift from buoyancy, rather than spending energy on rotor lift or aerodynamic lift over a wing. This lets us fly further and carry more payload than other small aircraft. Other attempts at unmanned cargo aircraft have used quadcopters or quad-plane hybrid drones. These are useful for some missions but lack the flight efficiency to carry large payloads long distances. Airships have other benefits too: they are safer and quieter than quadcopters or multirotor-plane hybrids. If the motors fail, an airship floats to the ground, while a quadcopter comes crashing down. And it’s an easy way to build an aircraft that can takeoff and land vertically, like a helicopter.

Our airship is a fabric envelope filled with helium, with an attached payload bay, motors, and power system. It gets 2/3 of its lift from buoyancy, and the rest from aerodynamic lift. This combination is called a hybrid airship, and allows us to drop off a payload without needing to take on ballast. The aircraft flies autonomously and can take off and land in inclement weather, using centimeter accuracy GPS for approaches. The full scale version will load 650 lbs of cargo at one end, fly to the destination while we pilot it remotely, deposit the cargo, and return. Our first operational vehicle will be battery electric, with a range of 200-300 miles and a cruise speed of 60 mph. Future vehicles will have hydrogen powertrains for longer-range missions.

We started off with a last-mile delivery concept (“Amazon box to the house”). But in conversations with logistics providers, we found a recurring problem transporting 300-600 lb shipments between warehouses or between airports. Using drones to deliver to houses is operationally complex, and the path to doing so at scale is still murky. But with a 650 lb payload, our drone can fit neatly into existing supply chains in the middle mile. This makes our operations much simpler and should allow us to get to market relatively quickly with a few aircraft on a few routes. We’ve closed $5M in LOIs, including one from a large regional air carrier in Alaska, and have two pilot programs planned.

We loved reading the thread a couple weeks ago about hydrogen vs. helium for blimps, and are excited to see what people think about our airships! Where do you see the biggest use case for vehicles like ours? Let us know any other thoughts or ideas, and we’ll be active in the comments today.

This is a neat concept - especially considering they are autonomous. However, I wonder about these risk scenarios:

1) Weather. Moving at 35 mph it seems that a lot of long term planning is in order for something that could be severely impacted by weather. This sounds like a logistical nightmare during a week of active weather across the country.

2) Helium availability - there have been reports that the costs of helium have gone up considerably since there are only a very few producers of the gas and this seems like it would be a huge consumer of such gas.

3) Vandalism. Never underestimate the power of stupid people. It's well known in the railroad industry that trains and their cargo often take bullets from traveling cross country. In fact, the 737 fuselages that travel across country on trains for Boeing often have bullet holes in them that must be repaired. Add in a huge cargo blimp that is unmanned and the urge for vandalism will be significant for some nefarious actors.

These are awesome questions! Here's a couple answers:

1) We're building our full size airship to fly at 60 mph, which increases the usability in inclement weather.

2) Joe answered this in another comment, but our airships use pretty small quantities of helium compared to the bigger ones, so it's not a major operational cost.

3) For sure this is an issue, but the bigger the blimp is, the more bullet holes you'd have to fill it with to prevent it from reaching its final destination. The german zeppelins of world war I were really hard to shoot down. See 5:47 of the below video.


I just attended a 7 year old girl's birthday party who was gifted a bb gun by her domestic-swilling uncle. We confirmed the temptation to shoot balloons is real. That said it seems like the other points you mentioned are working in your favor. The chances of hitting a small moving aircraft at a relatively high altitude is much lower than a 747 loaded onto a passing train. Plus I would like to imagine the temptation to shoot at something would diminish significantly as our hill billy wouldn't necessarily know it is unmanned. Not to mention anyone who has listened to a firearm safety talk is well-versed in how gravity affects projectiles. I wouldn't anticipate this being a significant problem, but it was a fun thought to entertain nonetheless.

And hey I'm just spit-balling here but isn't wind a much less of an issue at dusk, night, and dawn? Would this not be a significant factor in when you would operate? I would imagine most people shooting 747s on passing trains aren't getting out of bed to do that, after all.

In my experience around sunset and sunrise there is a period of varying wind characteristics, at least this seems to be the case in a city by water.

I mean for 3, it's called 'vandalism' but it should be considered assault, attempted murder or even domestic terrorism. I'd put a security system on there (using e.g. high speed cameras) so that hopefully you can pin down where the shots come from, then sick the authorities on them. I have no tolerance for people using guns irresponsibly.

They're unmanned though there could be a danger to people on the ground if there was enough damage done that it couldn't land under control.

Also if the idiots know they're unmanned and used to deliver goods, they could be even more motivated to attempt to shoot them down to steal the cargo. I also would consider putting cameras and the necessary technology to help identifying anyone attempting to shoot them down.

Or maybe paint them as sharks, then add some powerful lasers on their back:)

Hello gents! I have a burning question for you - what do you think about the idea of building a small airship that can be lived and traveled in? Sort of like a tiny house or vanlife, but in the air.

It's something I've always thought about since reading about it in science fiction books. What would the cost of something like that be?

I've thought about the same kind of thing. I registered Dirigibuilding.com several years ago because of it.

One of the best things I see about dirigibles vs other aircraft is that volume is plentiful. Because you want to minimize weight vs size, larger rooms are better. I imagine a floating mansion rather than a floating van.

That is a great domain name! You're right about the room size, I suppose you would have to keep it either in the air or parked in nature when it's that size. Damn it, I want one even more now!

OP has mentioned a 60ft version of their autonomous airship would be in the neighborhood of a couple hundred thousand USD.

Thank you! And that would hold around 2 tonne if the weight scales up linearly, or is it cubed? Either way still cheaper than a house here in Australia

The final one we're building will be 60 feet and have a 650lb payload, so would have to be an ultralight house! And you'd also need a place to park a 60'x20' airship. Or I suppose you could just keep it in the air? There's actually a startup that's supposedly building air yachts like you're talking about. I forgot the name but I think they're 150-200 feet.

Thanks for the reply, yes I believe they are called Airlander

Rich people spend $200,000 to $300,000 on bus/coach size giant RVs, or 55-foot catamarans, so that's not beyond the realm of possibility.

Don't take this the wrong way but...

I think its hard to avoid the elephant in the room that blimp cargo has been a dream ever since the invention of the blimp, and if we put your technology claims to one side (because they are more an assistant, not an enabler) I'm not too sure what makes you any different ?

Look at what is perhaps your most recent competitor ... Flying Whales.

Going since 2012, burning through cash like there's no tomorrow ($30m Quebec, €225m France etc. etc.) , and so far maybe promising some sort of prototype by 2024 (already slipped from 2021).

What really makes you so different from prior dreamers and in particular your present competitors ?

We're not planning to build something that's 600 feet long and costs hundreds of millions, we're building something that's 60 feet long and costs hundreds of thousands. Unmanned blimps of this size don't require the same amount of capital, so we can fly faster and get to market faster.

Supposing you had unlimited engineering resources and development or capital costs weren't an issue, are smaller blimps fundamentally superior to larger ones in some important way? For instance, are smaller blimps inherently faster or easier to control in windy conditions?

Very good answer. The key difference is the size it also offers you much more flexibility it would seem in terms of the role you can fill. You can always add more blimps.

But do you escape the regulatory requirements and the practical constraints ?

We'll spend a lot of time on certification. We need two things: a type-certification of the aircraft, and operator certifications for the organizations flying them. Both require a lot of flight hours, which will be our main development activity. There's no escaping aircraft regulation, but we have a clear path

Hopefully we've responded to practical constraints in other answers, but if not let me know questions.

> we're building something that's 60 feet long and costs hundreds of thousands.

Why still hundreds of thousands? Blimps are an incredibly simple, cheap technology, and drone hardware is completely commoditized at this point.

Entirely fair question I think. I'd add that execution can easily be the difference. Notably french startups generally have poor execution. For example, the entrepreneur in France generally has to get loan on his own person, indebting himself, "to be sure he believes in his own idea".

I'm not french but spent a fair amount of time in the EU tech ecosystem and I think that "Notably french startups generally have poor execution." is a super general statement that isn't fair to apply. I mean Bernard Arnault, one of the wealthiest people in the world, built LVMH and the government has been working hard via the la french tech initiative and Station F to make the startup ecosystem much more friendly.

I worked for a French founder for a few years and was quite involved with a lot of French people and companies (Thales, Veolia, Engie... to name a few) in tech.

I'll reserve my comments about my own personal experience but I think the characterization of poor execution is a bit sweeping.

Where I think the French and American start up communities differ is that failure is not generally accepted in France, whereas in the US it's acknowledged and somewhat accepted to have a few "duds" on the resume.

I think you're thinking about Xavier Niel, which created Free, Station F and 42

> indebting himself, "to be sure he believes in his own idea".

Putting the French specific comment to one side because I don't have sufficient knowledge to comment, what I would say is that having "skin in the game" is no bad thing (it focuses your mind, and demonstrates your commitment to others).

That's one of the problems with the US funding scene.

On one side its great because people will throw obscene amounts of money at you if your marketing pitch sells well enough.

One the other hand, it does lead to the situation where your commitment to the business only goes so far because you've basically always got someone else picking up the tab.

How frequently does this happen in reality? The reality is: startups are risky. Forcing the entrepreneur to take a bigger chunk of that risk than necessary leads to less innovation, playing it safe, and kills many businesses before they’ve left the ground. Would Airbnb exist? Would Coinbase exist? Would uber exist? Maybe, but probably not, because the founders here weren’t rich enough to absorb the costs given the odds.

In theory, having that much skin in the game sounds like a pro with small cons. The reality is that is kills innovation, leaves the few brave enough who fail indebted and hampered for years, and makes the successful a fraction of the scale (and disproportionately founded by those already rich).

Companies providing those services would exist anyways.

The profile of the person founding them would be different. You'd have istrionic risk takers, borderline gamblers carrying the company for the first say 5 years, then they'd be bought out and a more stable person would be brought in.

The VC model enables the economy at large to artificially skip the first step. It's artificial because Silicon Valley companies which basically start from zero and arrive in the S&P500 in 20 years or less, they have very low turnover in managment and executives.

It's like a Vietcong learning how to fly an F-35.

On average it has worked spectacularly well though.

Most founders aren’t taking a risk (they tend to come from wealthy families) they are executing a vision.

Depends on whether by “average” you mean “median” or “mean”!

I’d bet the median return on startups is negative.

The entire point of venture capital is to have 9 failures out of 10 and 1 that returns the entire fund

If only we could compare the success levels of the two funding scenes...

> If only we could compare the success levels of the two funding scenes...

As long as the US side doesn't seek to brush over the failures by attempting to focus people's attention on the successes. And also as long as we have a fair definition of "success" .... an exit strategy that comprises being able to hype up a blatantly overvalued IPO is not "success", for example.

Let's face it there have been some quite spectacular failures in the US in recent years. As well as many more less spectacular that have burnt through millions of dollars in cash before calling it quits.

All that glitters is not gold. The US has a mentality of "throwing more money at the problem", but that does leave you in an environment where larger and larger burn rates become acceptable.

The entire point of VC is a high failure rate and lots of failures with a few breakaway successes.

The loan approach misses the fact the the entrepreneur is going to spend several years of his life on the project. Nobody starts a company they don’t believe in. The cost is too high, even without the loans.

This is such a terrible critique, in my opinion. Just because something's never been done well doesn't mean it's impossible.

That many have tried and failed hints that there might be something there that is harder than it looks.

"Many"? How many blimp startups have here been in the modern era?

I don't understand why it took so long for them to build a prototype? 12 years?

Basically why now?

The economics on small airships only work if they're unmanned, and now is pretty much the best time ever to develop unmanned aircraft.

Suggestion for a potential marketing tool when you get to that point: have someone create your blimp in Microsoft Flight Simulator. While blimps already exist in the simulator, your design sounds unique and this would be a way to raise awareness of your company, even if sim players aren't your target customers.

We're planning to do this! Ben is a big fan of flight simulators and we'll build a model once things calm down a bit post YC

Very cool concept.

I’m sure your guys have done a ton of prior art, but I want to encourage you to make sure Amazon hasn’t patented this in any capacity yet.

A close friend that worked at Prime Air shared how years ago their division had a full time legal staff dedicated to patenting all engineers ideas. He had gotten several patents even being entry level FWIW. They had several concepts very similar to this and it wouldn’t surprise me if they were able to get that IP locked down. Like I said, I expect you all have checked and rechecked but thought it’s worth mentioning.

I was once told by a VC to never do a patent search as the money spent on the search and analysis would be better spent on developing the idea. Bad advice?

If you do a search two things will happen:

1) You are now aware of the patent and continuing to willfully infringe

2) You're going to spend days obsessing on how your idea is different, or they didn't think of this or that, or this tiny edge case convincing yourself of non-infringement.

In both cases any patent litigation attorney worth their salt will absolutely murder you. The best part is so many broad patents exist that everything infringes on one.

It doesn't take much money to search. It does, however, expose you to treble damages due to "willful infringement".

I'm sure patent trolls would agree with that advice.

All advice from VCs tends to be bad, but legal advice from VCs should be dismissed outright.

The search is very cheap and easy, and then you can decide if the risk is worth it.

Everytime I hear about companies patenting everything, it really bothers me.

I wish we would tie patent fees to the assets of a company, or person. Basically the wealthy boys would pay much more for a patent, and low income individuals woukd pay less, or nothing.

So a big company might think twice about an exponential government fee when they are on their 100 patent.

Wouldn't they just get a homeless guy to register it, and then transfer it over to them? I'm all for the intent behind your system but execution has gotta be airtight

Then charge a transfer fee based on company size. Which they do currently have different fees based on size of company but I'm pretty sure it's negligible. The other problem is patent trolls. So, you might want to tie fees every year to lack of sales. That would also force companies to let the patents go faster.

What's your plan for dealing with the fact that Helium is a non-renewable resource that we are rapidly running out of?

Have you done experiments into hydrogen safety?

Good questions. Helium is non-renewable, but there is still plenty in the ground. It's a byproduct of natural gas extraction, and as long as there's more gas in the ground there will be helium available. We do think that declining natural gas production as the world decarbonizes is a long term risk.

The helium market's been pretty volatile since the U.S. government finished selling off the national helium reserve in 2019. But we think that's mostly due to short-term market dynamics because helium's a hard commodity to produce and there are only a few producers. There are lots of stories about helium running out, but we've dug in and haven't found much evidence that supply is actually drying up

We think we can build a hydrogen blimp safely. It's not on our tech roadmap currently, but in any case the best way to build a hydrogen blimp is to get lots of flight hours on a helium version first.

> we've dug in and haven't found much evidence that supply is actually drying up

Interesting. Is this a case of people over-hyping the problem or just that prices are going to rise to a point that people will stop wasting it?

> the best way to build a hydrogen blimp is to get lots of flight hours on a helium version first

Can you just put hydrogen into an existing helium blimp or would you need to design a new one based on flight data?

I was under the impression they required radically different gasbag designs due to the explosion hazards (not to mention the increased lift)

> Is this a case of people over-hyping the problem...

As best I can tell, this is the case. The price of helium has gone up quite a bit, but non of the commentary links that to the actual production volumes of helium or size of remaining reserves.

> Can you just put hydrogen into an existing helium blimp

We'd need to modify the envelope design, but the rest of the design wouldn't need to be modified (aerodynamics, controls, propulsion, etc.)

For h2, depending on where some of your electronics/electrical systems are installed, you may need hazardous area rated gear ...equipment rated for use in flammable/explosive atmospheres. ATEX for Europe, AEx for North America, IECEx for rest of world.

> Can you just put hydrogen into an existing helium blimp or would you need to design a new one based on flight data?

The issue is more about the permeability of hydrogen gas. It can seep through all kinds of materials, including metals, and then embrittle them.

Does it embrittle rubber or plastic balloons? Hydrogen is so cheap and easy to make, you could have a single bottle that feeds into a blimp, refilling it when enough has seeped out.

It chemically reacts with a lot of things. Graphene coatings are being explored - powdered graphene oxide seems promising, but permeability without a contiguous layer of something that can block h2 molecules is a "laws of physics are laughing at you" level issue. If large super high quality graphene sheets ever become practical, they can make almost perfectly impermeable envelopes.

But yes hydrogen is cheap enough that refillable bottles and more leakage is cheaper than helium in terms of just the features of lifting gas. Hydrogen reactivity makes for other materials, engineering, and maintenance challenges that can be ignored with helium.

Video would be much more impressive if it showed loading the cargo package -- can it pick up autonomously or does it need to be loaded by a ground crew? -- and also dropping it off within a designated space marked by cones.

Will the full-size model be able to lift a standard 40-foot shipping container? That would be very cool indeed, to have the blimp pick up from a truck or from a container ship.

The full size blimp is only 60ft long, and is intended to carry 650lb, so not anywhere near a shipping container. Also I'm not sure it's important that it be able to pick up or even drop off autonomously. It's getting the cargo from point A to point B that's the hard part. If they can do that cost effectively, that's plenty to have a very viable business.

Tare weight for a shipping container is 8000lbs, so no.

This is really cool and this is the kind of startup I'd be applying to in a heartbeat! Very excited to see this happening, great work! I feel like there is vastly more potential for LTA flight that isn't being re-explored with autonomous drones and solar being viable now.

What altitudes do you intend on operating in the "v1"?

> I feel there is vastly more potential for LTA flight that isn't being re-explored with autonomous drones and solar being viable now

Interesting to see it go the other way too. Hybrid Air Vehicles near me is the remnants of a cancelled US military autonomous blimp project, now aspiring to use the large helium blimps originally powered by diesel engines to pilot 100 civilians passengers as an alternative to turboprops (i.e. use the bits of the tech and the business model that's been around in some form since before Hindenberg)

I do think freight with electric propulsion (over distances battery-powered heavier than air aircraft can't compete even if they're also autonomous) is an easier environmentally friendly sell.

Standard drone regulations in the U.S. allow mostly unrestricted flight up to 400 feet. We think that's about the right altitude to stay below general aviation - no obvious advantages to flying higher - but TBD depending on how regulations evolve

That's very cool!

How does it handle weather? You mention it can take off and land in inclement weather, but how does it compare with existing competitors? Intuitively (as someone with zero knowledge or experience in any of this), it seems like planes and helicopters could handle higher winds than a blimp - is that the case?

It depends. For example, small planes need runways to take off and land, and if the crosswinds are over 15 kts they aren't able to operate. In this same situation, our airships would be able to take off and land because they have VTOL capability like a helicopter and can point in any direction. Helicopter can take off and land in really high winds, up to 40 kts, but they are 4-8x more expensive to operate than planes, and have limited range.

Our test site is by a wind farm so we have a lot of experience with flying blimps in wind, and we expect our max takeoff windspeed for the full size airship to be 25-30 kts.

How does it cope with turbulence and wind sheer compared to an aeroplane?

Isn’t the von Karman efficiency of small airships very low? I struggle to see how you can claim “ An airship is the most efficient way to fly because it gets most of its lift from buoyancy”.

Either way, seems like a cool project- I wish you luck!

Good question! Airships do get more efficient as they get larger (more volume to surface area). But at the 650 lb payload size our vehicles fly more efficiency than a comparably-sized plane - small planes are also aerodynamically inefficient!

Our goal isn't to maximize efficiency, but rather to build something that fits a market need and that we can deploy quickly. We actually think that the quest to build huge, efficient airships has lead past airship projects astray. There are several projects that have struggled to build 10 ton or 50 ton vehicles, but no past attempts to build something in this size class.

Define what you mean by fly more efficiently. I'd like to see some numbers on efficiency.

The two most important efficiency metrics are Lift to drag ratio (L/D) and energy per payload mass per distance.

Lift to drag ratio describes the aerodynamic efficiency of the vehicle. Typical values, depending on flight conditions, are 4-5 for a helicopter, 8-13 for small planes, and 12-16 for our airships. (Large planes can get as high as 17, but a larger airship would be also be even more efficient). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lift-to-drag_ratio#Examples_of...

From the L/D ratio and the propulsion system efficiency you can calculate the total energy used, and divide that by the payload mass to get energy/kg/km.

L/D ratio is not enough, you also have to take into account speed. A L/D of 6 at 120 mph has an equivalent per mile efficiency of an L/D of 12 at 60 mph (and a better von Karman efficiency).

The figure of merit is maximum (speed * L/D), not L/D alone, and this is where the efficiency of airships fall apart. Due to their greater parasite drag compared to aircraft (necessitated by the lifting gas volume), airships generally can’t match the same per mile efficiency, and even if they can, not at the same von Karman efficiency.

That's not the case. The energy per mile depends only on the L/D ratio and the mass of the aircraft.

L/D is a ratio of forces, and work = force times distance. Going faster at the same L/D decreases the travel time but increases the power used, for the same energy usage. Generally L/D depends on speed, but you can get an apples-to-apples comparison of the energy usage of two different aircraft by comparing only L/D.

I think we might be discussing two different figures of merit. The efficiency that I care about is "energy per lb of payload per mile." You haven't defined what you mean by "efficiency per mile," but from the reference to von Karman efficiency, I think you have a figure-of-merit in mind that includes speed - specific resistance or productivity or something like that.

But the economics of our vehicle and use case don't really change with speed. The middle mile legs that we're flying are not fully-utilized - the most important thing is to get the cost per flight down, so that we can dispatch the aircraft whenever there's a delivery ready.

But aren't these L/D numbers calculated for a theoretical case where there is no wind? What kind of L/D ratios would you see for helicopters, planes and blimps given a 20 knot head wind?

Sure, I don't doubt a blimp is more efficient when the wind is blowing it to where it wants to go, but what happens when the wind doesn't cooperate?

EDIT: yes, the Wikipedia page states that L/D numbers are usually presented as graphs, because they are dependent on speed. This means that without knowing the wind speed the blimp is facing, especially given it travels at a lowly 35 MPH, you can't really calculate an L/D number. For the helicopter and airplane, the wind matters less as they are going much faster.

Planes encounter a lot of air resistance because they're constantly creating lift, which means they're pushing a lot of air around -- which means drag. Planes also fly fast which means a lot of drag (drag forces are proportional to velocity squared). Blimps don't need to produce lift, and they move much slower.

Nifty! Simple, exciting and aesthetically pleasing idea. I've known people from Alaska who have to get their supplies flown in, so it's cool you're covering that use case from the start - although apparently that whole service economy is really driven by the smuggling of alcohol, as many towns there are "dry". You may be stepping on some toes if you muscle into this territory.

How does piloting work? Is the goal to make these things completely autonomous, or will there be a remote pilot at all times?

What's the business model? Can I buy one of your blimps, or are you going to become FedEx of the low skies?

The goal is to make them completely autonomous, though a pilot observer will likely be required for the near future.

Business model is something we're still figuring out. We have interest on both sides, but at first we'll definitely be operating themselves as the 'FedEx of the low skies.' Once the airship is certified (1-3 years after we build it), we can sell them.

On-board pilot/observer? Or remote, like a military drone operator?

If you build the infrastructure for the latter, one operator could likely manage multiple craft.

That said, what does either type of pilot do, if the vehicle misbehaves? What's the abort protocol, esp. over populated areas? Given a 600-lb payload, self-destruct is not an appealing way to exit.

Remote pilot like a military drone operator! If a vehicle misbehaves, worst case scenario would be a total control failure (will definitely have redundancies designed in), which would result in the airship slowly falling to the ground. Hopefully, people would see it coming and be able to get out of the way!

I think this is a really interesting project. When I read about the helium vs hydrogen post, same as you, I started scratching things out for curiosities sake (I was more curious about how high you could reasonably go). Very exciting stuff. I've got a bunch of questions, feel free to cherry pick if you decide to respond.

How delicate do you suspect this will be? Will a bored or malicious person be able to cause harm with a laser, an air rifle with pellet or BB, or gun? In the event of a puncture what is the failure mode like? Are you worried about birds? Are you concerned about banditry? I know the last might sound silly, but you'd only really need to go to our grand-parents and great-grand-parents to find some train robbers.

I could see Hollywood making use of this for filming in remote locations. Or other situations where you need to get something heavy and oddly shaped up or over a mountain. Relief work as well where the roads aren't operable. Wouldn't surprise me if this had applications in agriculture either, if anyone is still using planes might be nicer to have an autonomous blimp instead. Maybe stuff like introducing fish to alpine lakes, if you've got good control of vertical height you could probably design a safe exit system.

Most of that is supposing that getting the blimp somewhere to then be used is easy. How is transportation of those things when not in use?

A bored or malicious person will definitely be able to shoot our airships. The nice part about an airship is that if you shoot it with a gun, the hole will be small so it will take a long time for the gas to leak out. The failure mode is the airship will gradually lose lift and have trouble flying, probably on the order of hours before it wouldn't have enough to fly.

Most of the time we'll be operating over areas without people, so if the airships do get shot at, they should be in an area where they can safely land and be recovered. The envelope will be tough enough to handle birds landing on it.

Regarding banditry, we hope that we are providing enough value to these communities that there will be peer pressure to prevent it.

It's relatively easy to transport them when not in use, either keeping them inflated and flying to the end location, or packing them up and assembling/inflating on location.

Rad! Thanks for the answers and best of luck!

Wooah the video is so hacker-cool. I would add a little mention on your videos to tell it's not CGI (real life/world footage or something), it might add to the impact and make it tiktok ready. Speaking of tiktok, might be an interesting platform for your videos.

This seems much safer than most autonomous drones I've seen (or planes/helicopters). I hope this works out.

Having a bunch of them in the air in a constant cycle synced with the warehouse could compensate for the lost speed and could result in more distributed last mile centers. So package delivery is closer to ordering time, rather than sitting in queued bunches.

This is exactly where we think the big market opportunity is!

I think the concept is awesome, and I'm excited to see it, but it raises so many questions about how this is going to work. First question that comes to mind is how are you going to handle weather- and not just crazy storms, but heat and pressure too. Blimps/semi-rigid airships face a less than ideal operating window, and while ballonets and ballast can help manage the buoyancy of the ship, inevitably you'll have to vent helium. How are you going to approach the infrastructure the drones are going to need to stay topped up on helium and ballast, and how are you going to approach emergency situations where you end up outside of the operating window of the aircraft?

We anticipate these will have operating bases with lifting gas storage tanks, hangars, tiedowns, etc. The hybrid design we're using doesn't need ballast because the total vehicle mass is heavier than air. In emergencies, we would land them in a field or on water for recovery when conditions improve, or fly to an area with better weather.

Very nice. I have somewhere the book Airship Technology, which I bought when I was curious about the possibility of blimp drones (I was an aerospace engineer some time ago).

I'm glad you are considering smaller blimps, I think previous projects have been too ambitious. Since I have worked on drone navigation I'm curious about your approach in that regard and how you are going to attain autonomy and get it certified. If you manage to get it a completely autonomous and certified that alone will be an asset even if you pivot away from blimps! Are you going to use alternatives to GPS? GPS is very precise when it works but I doubt you can get certification based on that alone.

I can't stop thinking about this. Logistic systems that utilize heli-stats and other drones for various flexible and inconvenient legs of the route seem incredibly powerful to replace trucks and small planes. Automation will change everything.

What are your thoughts on using gasoline or diesel and a free-piston linear generator to achieve much better watt-hour/kg ratio (as compared to li-ion batteries), without all of the gas handling and complexity of a hydrogen fuel cell setup?

We think we're starting at about the right time to skip straight to aviation hydrogen. Several companies are working on fuel cells and infrastructure specifically for aviation. We're starting with the battery version, and by the time we deploy the hydrogen version in the middle of the decade we expect the cost to have come down a lot.

If we're successful, these airships will be flying for decades to come. The extreme weather this summer and the recent IPCC report has driven home how important it is for new forms of transportation to be zero emission from the beginning.

How do you plan to handle refueling apparatus and hydrogen tankage and storage at remote locations?

> and can take off and land in inclement weather

What kind of inclement weather are we talking about?

Aircraft have to deal with some really inclement weather. METARs like 12026G41. You mention you are testing in Alaska, which is infamous for this.

How much of a problem will this be?

The inclement weather where our airships have the biggest advantage is in fog or limited visibility due to autonomy hardware/software in geographies with traditionally VFR approaches. Based on our experiences flying our current prototype, the full size airship should be able to take-off and land in wind speeds of 25-30 kts.

I don't understand how this could lift 650lb:


= 28 lbs (13 kg)

You're right, 650 lbs is the full scale version. The current prototype carries 0-10 lbs, depending on battery load. Edited the post to make that a bit clearer.

How high can this ships go? How Fast?

All along the Andes in South America there is a dire need to efficiently move products from high altitude to the coast (where major cities are)

In Peru for example, there are hundreds of small farming towns sitting at 10'000+ feet of altitude but just 40 straight line miles from the ocean.. Today to get there, trucks have to use one of the few roads that ,zig-zag up to the high lands before heading into any of this towns. ( an 8 to 16 hour trip )

Being able to ship produce straight down to the big cities on the coast would be a game changer.

* I posted this on another thread, but I just found this is the OP

Cool idea. Coincidentally, I used to a share a ride to work with a guy who spent a number of years at Hybrid Air Vehicles (the blimp with the rear-end shaped rear end). I myself worked in UAV start-up in a previous life. I always had to evaluate aerostats as a competing technology to what we had to offer.

Do you see any optionality in markets you can target besides delivery? Defense/surveillance? Anti-poaching? We had quite a bit of interest in wildlife sanctuary and border surveillance. Monitoring for illegal fishing is a very hot topic for a certain large SE Asian archipelago.

You're probably familiar with the AEREON 26 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AEREON_26 But if you haven't read John McPhee's excellent book The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, I'd highly recommend doing so.

One obvious tradeoff blimps is lower speeds than what people normally expect from "air freight". You mention 60mph in your post, which seems comparable to trucks. Are your customers primarily interested in air freight for speed, or is it mostly avoiding the cost of a driver, or is it something else entirely?

Our primary value proposition is cost, but we're also faster on most routes because we fly point-to-point. To start off with, we're selling to customers who already fly cargo aircraft in areas where roads aren't an option. Our airship is much cheaper than the planes they currently use. Longer term, we think we're competitive with trucks for less-than-truckload cargo and in low population density areas.

what can be the cost of a full 660 Lb 250 mile two way trip? are you including the salary of the driver/pilot in this cost? how much would that be? the website says half of cessna but i do not know how much does a cessna has in operating costs so what

Lack of roads

This is a project I’ve had in the back of my mind for awhile! Cool to see you guys on the front page, if you start hiring I’ll definitely be reaching out. Curious about the following:

1.) What does the regulatory landscape look like for this kind of work? Was there significant prep, or did you guys find it easy to get moving right away? I’m curious specifically about any obstacles both with flying your airships and the remote piloting.

2.) How much of the airship is manufactured in-house? Are you building the whole airship from scratch? Designing the fabric envelope material too?

3.) You mention the airships land in inclement weather, how inclement might that be? Any cool test videos you could share? :P

On 1, It was surprisingly easy to get started. We fly under Part 107, which basically says as long as you're flying low, in line of sight, and not over people you're unrestricted. And we found a local municipal airport that has a drone test range, and they've been enormously helpful.

On 2, we're big fans of vertical integration and will definitely manufacture the envelopes in house. Goal is to build the envelope/structure, and buy the propulsion/avionics off the shelf.

Since you're already planning on using hydrogen fuel cells for propulsion, does it play well with using hydrogen as the lift gas, too? Since the airship is unmanned, this seems like a good synergy.

Someone else mentioned the prevalence of vandalism against trains crossing the country, and that all too many trains arrive at their destination with bullet holes. A hydrogen-filled blimp would be a tempting target for people so inclined.

A train is a giant piece of metal they can hear the bullet hitting. There's no sound reward to shooting your gun into the air, maybe hitting a blimp.

Amazing, we have been looking for company like that. How high you can fly ? Could you take our cargo to stratosphere ? Is high altitude considered?

Also what about solar ? Is there a possibility for flexible solar panels on envelope ? Of the shelf solar can bend to about 30 deg, I am unsure what is the max with current technology.

In anyways all the best in your endeavours I am rooting for you. There are many more applications where blimps like that and different would be great fit

Wow, nice work! It looks quite controllable and maneuverable in what appear to be decent winds. Interesting using dual cylinders - what do you find works best about that design vs others you considered? Does this provide any redundancy (as in could you fly if one deflated)? What scale of thrust and elec power do you use (if you don't mind my asking)? Are you considering a range of sizes or just the "mid mile" 650Lb capacity version?

> We loved reading the thread a couple weeks ago about hydrogen vs. helium for blimps

Say it takes 1000 m3 hydrogen to lift 1 m3 concrete. Image a pyramid shaped cone 4000 meter long with a bottom 4 m3. Now imagine a balloon with a diameter of 8000 meters.

Clearly much to big to build [for now]. We pump the hydrogen out of it. How much extra lift does that generate before the balloon implodes? What other materials can we use? Would it be possible to make it smaller than a km?

Your math is off, I think. 1000 m3 would be a 10x10x10 meter cube, which is pretty easy to imagine.

I really have no idea how to do it properly. I was thinking a wedge shape 2000 m long with 2 m height difference would be 1 m thick on average. Then one can build a circle out of those. With a pyramid you could build a sphere (kind of).

It was originally a napkin calculation from someone who did. The pun [if you like] is that a flying city is doable but one has to think much much bigger.

Stupid question: how do you handle air resistance on a windy day? I always thought that's what made blimps inherently uneconomical (though can also imagine maintenance costs are high). An airplane has very little drag compared to its lift capacity. I don't really know, but expect a blimp to be terrible in comparison. Fine for stationary lifting, but expensive when you want to move things horizontally, against the wind.

My guess is that you just don't fly unless the weather is good. Since these are small ships it's not like your whole Walmart is going to be on it.

How does one follow your progress? Your website doesn't list any social media, mailing list etc (which is fine and understandable - focus on building) - but I want to follow how you guys do. :)

I am very fascinated by this! I read the headline and thought it sounds super-gimmicky, but I spent the last two hours crawling down this rabbithole, and I really like your idea and approach. It makes total sense. I wish you guys all the best of luck!

You mention the full scale version will take 650lbs - are there plans to increase that in the future? I'm thinking about the transport of commodities from inland hubs in Africa/MENA (e.g. copper in Zambia, coffee in West Africa) that is a pain to get to ports now. How does it perform in heavy rains? What sort of infrastructure investment is needed to set up facilities to receive the airship on either side?

Not to be confused with the other Buoyant [1], the company behind the linkerd service mesh.

Not that I'm really into service meshes, but I happened to be doing some reading about the Tokio async runtime for Rust yesterday, and a lot of the work on that has been funded by that Buoyant, which is why that company was on my mind.

[1]: https://buoyant.io/

I love blimps and dirigibles, but I have always wondered about their practicality, particularly in inclement weather. like, when it rain, they get heavier,

For rural or sub-urban logistics I can see how it could work, if you have large enough landing zones, or if you have strong enough station keeping maybe a winching system from a few stories high (then the weight question pops up)

I'm curious about the economics question like what kind of 300 / 600lb shipment is worth the trip, and how much of it are there in a blimp-appropriate weather areas that it justifies the development and deployment of a whole new class of transport? (and how do you plan of safeguarding it against pirates;)

Do you plan to store your airships are a particular location or will the just hang out in the air somewhere waiting for a payload?

Have you considered partnering with earth imaging services to sell them images during trips or serving as relay antenna for them to communicate with their micro-satellites

I also have lots of silly questions:

- if it's sunny, would a black envelope provide better lift?

- A what watt / square meter / kilo / solar prevalence are solar panels on top worth the extra complexity and weight?

- Would there be any advantage to using a pump+compressor to vary the quantity of helium in the envelope? What about heaters / coolers ?

I think the issue about airships being white rather than black is that heating up the envelope is something you don't want. Having too much lift, and not enough ballast, is just as much a problem as too little lift and no ballast to drop. The gas expands when warmed up, and the envelope can stretch to some point, but then you have to vent the gas in order to stop it from bursting. When it gets cooler eventually, you have to refill the gas.

Model airship hobbyists often use a compressor to pump the helium back into a tank, to get the model into a transportable size. That might work here, also. Otherwise an airship must be stored in a hangar, or supervised 24/7 while filled with helium, even when attached to a pole.

> and helped start a company that made shirts with upside down pockets

Okay, I would like to know more about this... Who was it for?

Can you share details about the CO2 emissions per kg-mile of cargo as compared to e.g. trucking or traditional air freight?

What about using aerial cranes to build a zip line depot network instead. You could then have anchor lines for your blimps.

I've thought the hybrid airship approach has a lot of benefits, and fewer drawbacks than conventional airships.

What's the full-scale design going to look like? Will you continue to use the standard blimp shaped envelope? Or will you transition to a fat flying wing type design?

Agreed, nice to meet someone else who knows what a hybrid airship is! it solves a lot of challenges around ground handling and cargo loading/unloading.

The full scale design is a fatter shape that approximates a flying wing. That's why the aircraft in the demo video is two lobes - the final version will have an aerodynamic cover between the lobes.

How dangerous is wind?

So many cool concepts failed to just hunker down during wind.

My favourite, the cyclocrane https://youtu.be/CiU71GFs4Fs?t=178

The cyclocrane seems to have targeted a similar market replacing helicopters.

Can ammonia gas be used? NH3 is non flammable, is far cheaper(with less lift as well) leaks a lot less, but does have low temperature condensation issues = warmer flight times only. In addition, the wind speed in Alaska is often above 60 MPH

Ammonia is super toxic - even a controlled descent that lands near people could be terrifyingly dangerous. It's an awesome refrigerant, for example, but is considered too dangerous for general/ non-industrial use. Even in a remote location, you could kill lots of plants and wildlife. Given Alaska's notorious cold winters, you'd need to engineer a heating system- it liquifies at 30 below, which you'd encounter frequently even at low altitude.

Ammonia is most definitely flammable, from 15% to 28% concentration by volume.

thank you.

Did you choose batteries for the first version to simplify the power train? Also, why use hydrogen instead of a cheaper, buoyant neutral fuel like propane? If you are worried about the carbon, you can always buy direct air capture credits.

It seems like Alaska is quite prone to inclement weather, not just clouds but ice, including SLD icing.

How’s a blimp handle icing conditions? (I’m imagining “poorly”, but I don’t have a real idea and suspect you’ve got more info on it.)

We have a pretty cool plan for managing icing that I can't talk about here because of IP disclosure. In general we don't think icing will be an unsolvable problem.

I look forward to learning more about your anti-icing plans as you’re able to share them. Best.

Do you see opportunities in a "missing middle", where maybe a direct airship route may be more efficient than criss-crossing a rail cargo network? I've been interested in this space for a long time!

Definitely. This is a longer term market and hard to quantify so we talk less about it, but we think that vertical takeoff aircraft that don't use the road or rail system will enable tons of new routes.

It sounds like an outstanding search and rescue platform, in calm conditions.

Most counties have surveillance aircraft from DHS with thermal imaging and cell triangulation that work well for aerial searches. The vast majority of UAVs are too noisy and distract ground searchers (remember you are trying to listen for people that might be faintly calling out for help) and make the airspace unsafe for larger aircraft to operate in the search.

A fleet for autonomous search and rescue would be awesome.

Damn you are going to kill it with current shipping prices being INSANE. I heard containers that used to ship for $4k now cost $20k. Delivery times have blown from 50 days to 250 days.

It would be a risky flight for the drone, but that might get supplies to Pitcairn island, where it could be recharged and sent back. (Prevailing winds might be a problem though.)

Is this like the dynalifter? http://www.ohioairships.com/

Makes a lot of sense. Save energy, travel further and carry more. Unfortunate that I won't have a blimp arriving at my doorstep though (yet!) :P

Good luck!

How far along are you on getting FAA approval for beyond visual line of sight operation? Or will there be a pilot on the full scale version?

We haven't filed for a BVLOS waiver yet, that's something we're planning to do in the next couple months. Full scale version will be unmanned.

where did you get the money to build all this? if you already have this sort of money, what do you need YC for?

We built the current prototype on the YC investment. Before that, I self funded. The current prototype's 20 ft and cheaper than you might expect.

We've found YC enormously helpful and worth the dilution, providing structure, advice, and also momentum. We've gotten a ton done this summer!

so what did you have going when you applied to YC?


Best of luck to them of course.

But they already built a couple of models before YC. It makes financial sense to dilute by 7% and use the name recognition to drive a much higher valuation.

But this does squeeze out the true pre-seed teams.

I hope it has a good collision avoidance system. There are lots of small planes and helicopters in Alaska.

Have you thought about information gathering applications? For example inspecting power lines.

Love the idea. How do I reach out for employment as an experienced data science leader?

How does a hybrid blimp compare to a glider style drone as it relates to efficiency?

This is really cool, also surprisingly agile! Are the gas bags at earth pressure?

Is hydrogen as lifting gas still verboten? Yet aok under high pressure as fuel?

Cool project, I like the idea. How loud is this thing, as compared to a drone?

Can you control boyancy by compressing and decompressing the helium slightly?

Airships do this already using ballonets. see:


I have connections at 3M, let me know if you need any fancy materials :)

If long term safety is favorable, I'd to see more of theses.

How do I convince you to make a thermal semirigid body airship?

As long as this is better for the environment I’m all for it.

In remote areas, might hydrogen be safe enough to use?

In general hydrogen is safe to use. It's only flammable when mixed with oxygen and it's 10x cheaper.

A punctured envelope can result in high oxygen hydrogen mix at the point of failure, and static or sparks can ignite the mix, leading to a failure cascade. Hydrogen oxygen mixed burn really hot, and you want envelope materials to be super thin and light. Cellular designs that are engineered around controlling catastrophic failure of individual nodes might be the only feasible way hydrogen ever becomes practical for anything near people. That increases the weight since you need lots of little envelopes instead of one big balloon.

Fortunately, materials science is allowing for this, and safety features in big helium ships are always improving and laying a foundation for the eventual transition to hydrogen.

Had any interesting run-ins with lightning?

Makes me think 'barge vs. wagon'.

Isn't 650 lbs not that much? It's only a little more than 4 humans. So is this actually scalable to get to a bigger market?

What kind of payload are we talking?

If you can make them stealthier, accept crypto and/or cash and not ask a lot of questions, I believe you can double that market figure.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact