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Launch HN: HyLight (YC S23) – Hydrogen airships to inspect energy infrastructure
192 points by ThomasLaporte 9 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 207 comments
Hi HN, we’re Thomas, Martin, Théo, and Josef, cofounders at HyLight (https://www.hylight.aero). We build and operate autonomous hydrogen airships to inspect energy infrastructure like pipelines and power lines. Here’s a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SuW5ur8ER7A.

Energy infrastructure operators (utility companies) struggle with conducting precise inspections of their assets. It is extremely important for them because they need to make sure that the network is in good condition to avoid outages and leaks. This infrastructure has big impacts when it is malfunctioning. For instance, methane leaks from oil and gas infrastructure represent 4% of global carbon emissions every year (and approx. $7B worth of losses in Northern America and Europe).

Gas and power networks are physically so large (more than 47M miles globally) that millions of miles of inspections must be done each year. Currently the most used solution is helicopters (used on 90% of inspections). Helicopters are dangerous, have a high carbon footprint and are costly to use. Plus, helicopter service providers have to go as fast as they can to save their margins. So the data quality is not optimal at all.

Our airship (the “HyLighter”) does exactly what is needed to gather a lot of precise information from the air. It flies slowly and can hover almost indefinitely, it consumes little energy, allowing great range for inspections. It can simultaneously mount all the sensors that are required for the inspections (HQ cameras, LiDAR, infrared, leak detection devices...). Plus, due to its size, we can write stuff on it to tell nearby residents what we are doing.

How does it work? It is basically a drone airship. We use a lighter-than-air gas in the envelope (helium or hydrogen) for buoyancy. We have a H2 tank and fuel cell transforming H2 into power for all the systems. In terms of engines we built 2 gyros (gyroscopes engines) at the rear and front of the airship. They allow us to have vectorial thrust and therefore to be extremely maneuverable. The sensors are fixed under the HyLighter on gimbals and can easily “follow” the linear infrastructure that is inspected.

When we began working on H2 and drones, we quickly realized that there was a problem with the weight of H2 tanks. The tanks have to be very strong to contain enough H2 which is extremely low in density. Then, we realized that we could use the "problem" inherent to H2 (very low density) to our advantage. We simply needed to use H2 as a lifting gas and power source. The envelope of the airship becomes the tank!

The HyLighter is more efficient than other current solutions. As mentioned, helicopters are the most-used at present. Compared to those, we use less energy, emit less GHG, have better data quality, and less risks for human beings as the HyLighter is unmanned. Compared to quad drones, we have longer flight time and more payload, allowing for various simultaneous sensors collecting data—we can simultaneously mount all the sensors that are required for the inspections (HQ cameras, LiDAR, infrared, leak detection devices). Compared to plane drones, our flight speed is lower so we can collect better data and less ground risk. Compared to satellites, we have a lot more precision (actually they can't even be used for most of our operational use cases).

The genesis of HyLight is that Théo wanted to work on new uses of H2 and drones when he was at school. He was joined by Martin who studied in the same engineering school, then by Josef who's Martin's BFF and then by me. I met Théo when we finished our studies in UC Berkeley last year and we all launched HyLight together. As we kept working on it, we gained more and more interest from pipeline and power line operators and we realized that there was indeed a big problem.

HyLight is at the stage where we have our first POCs. Our first paid flight is in the coming weeks. Our business model is straightforward: inspection as a service. We charge a price per kilometer depending on length, location and type of data collected.

I discovered HN not too long ago and I’m impressed with the engagement in tech and innovation of this community! I’m very interested to get your opinion on HyLight. Maybe some people work in the energy industry and know a thing or two about energy infra inspections that we could learn from? If so please tell us what you think, be it red flags or positive stuff! Also, as individuals, how would you feel seeing a big drone airship flying in the air near your home? We look forward to any and all comments!




That's a very cool project! I am a hot-air balloon pilot and I love everything that flies with the lighter-than-air principle.

One limitation I could see for your business model is that airships can only be flown in a controlled direction at rather slow wind speeds. That is because they just have such a huge attack surface and the motors have limited thrust.

Did you do an estimate how many days per year you could fly your vehicle in a given economic area of interest? I fly balloons in Switzerland and I think you can get at most 100 days of good flight conditions a year. But yeah, with some climate data and your operational limitations you can probably estimate how many days you get in a given area...


Thank you very much for your support!

We've made research and we aim to resist to 10 to 11m/s of wind speed. This would allow us to fly in 80% of regions of Europe, 80% of the time!


Also: for inspecting wind turbines (which I imagine would be a use-case), the operators usually want to work on low-wind days anyway.

I used to work at a large offshore wind operator, and the approach we used there for leading-edge inspection of blades was a telephoto lens from a neighboring turbine. As anything involving technicians off-shore, this was very expensive.


thank you for the insight that's so interesting


That sounds like a very enjoyable endeavor! I was wondering, what are the benefits and drawbacks to flying a lighter-than-air ship under 1,000 feet? Or even closer to the ground/tops of buildings? <500 feet? Are there simply too many regulatory issues?

I have a dream that some day there will be airships floating around cities, ferrying passengers and freight, and they will float only 30-100 meters above the tallest buildings.


The issue is they’re quite slow and not exactly nimble craft so flying low you need to be very sure you’re well clear of the surrounding hazards.


What tolerances can helicopters operate at, for comparison? I can imagine you don't want what looks like an inherently unstable aircraft to be close to power lines at higher winds.


More has to do with gusts for helicopters, partly because they can point into the wind which is no different from forward flight if it’s steady.


Very interesting concept team. I know a fair bit about inspections for energy infra from my time at various utilities in NZ/AU and the UK - and I think you're on the right track.

Would be interested to learn about your approach with computer vision for detecting defects. I worked closely with a project some time ago where we flew overhead lines with a drone. We had some issues with background separation - given the conductor hung at varying heights and the drone flew at a constant height, the camera was always refocusing - it was hard to get consistent results. It ended up resulting in false positives more than anything.

I'm also interested in how you discern defects. Some sort of anomaly detection? ML? If so, how did you source training data? Also would be interested in how you determine speciation for underclearance of lines.

So many cool elements of this to nerd out about. Congrats on launch, will be following closely!


Wow thank you so much for the support.

For now, we've focused a lot of our time on building the vector to gather the data. We did POC of code for real time power line following (so power line recognition and follow). We know that there are a lot of startups on this field of data analysis so we began scouting to see the level that is reached today. And decide if we should build our own model or use another one.


A slow moving blimp could use good industrial cameras with liquid lens for fast focus, giving a very sharp image for post-processing.


Are there any regulatory concerns with using hydrogen as the lifting gas, and if so, how do you plan to address them? A few years ago I was involved with an R&D contract bid looking at unmanned airships for communication, and one of the takeaways we found was that hydrogen is actually prohibited as a lifting gas here in Canada [1]. Presumably, the regulations were written before remotely operated or autonomous airships were envisioned, but even so we opted to baseline helium to avoid the risk of a waiver being denied. I assume other countries have similar airworthiness rules.

[1] https://tc.canada.ca/en/corporate-services/acts-regulations/...


Actually, it was exactly the same in France where we operate. It is written that H2 is forbidden but we asked the civil aviation authority and they told us that we just need to ask for the autorization to use this gas when we organize our flight approval. We asked the same question to the EU aviation authority and they told us that were not seeing any problem with using H2 as a lifting gas because of the great record of the Gordon Bennett Cup: https://balloonfiesta.com/Gordon-Bennett-2023. Which had no incident in many years.


The FAA's 1995 Airship Design Criteria report says: "The lifting gas must be non-flammable."

Page 44: https://www.faa.gov/sites/faa.gov/files/aircraft/air_cert/de...


I'm not sure but I think that this applies to manned airships.


You may want to be sure about the regulatory environment you're selling into.


Exactly you are right, for now we are selling in Europe and the regulatory requirements are good.


You might consider whether there was perhaps an underlying issue behind the regulations and the logic around that issue could apply regardless of manmade border lines.


It was the hazard posed to the people piloting the craft.


Thank you for strengthening my point.


We must be talking past each other because the craft under discussion is unmanned - how does a hazard to a crew that does not exist strengthen your point?


If it's a hazard to a crew, it could also be a hazard to electronics that pilot the craft. If the craft comes down as a result, that could be bad news for any forests, buildings, people, etc. nearby on the ground.

Glad to help!


There is a _significant_ difference in the damage done in a manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft. To even imply that the same laws would apply is absurd.


Of course there's a difference, but if the incident causes a fire that then spreads, that is very bad in either case. It's more likely the law exists from the fire concern than out of concern for the pilots, and the law is just waiting for an update to catch up with a world that has more drones.


Hi! We at Aeroscan.nl also facilitate power line inspection in The Netherlands besides real estate, it's a smaller market but with higher margins here.

We used to pitch our expensive long range UAV to do power line inspections but by the time we got to run our first pilots DJI had already launched an actual good professional drone (M300) that was more economical to run and by the time we started production DJI had launched a small drone that achieves effectively the same thing without heavy cameras (M30E).

Make sure you've got at least 2 years of runway, customer acquisition in this market can take years. I'd agree with crubier on focusing on either hardware or software but the reality is that the customers are going to want a full solution, so if you're not going to do something make sure you've got partners to do it with.

If you need a partner for Cloud based power line inspection we could be it. Our main focus is real estate but as I said we did land a big powerline job and our platform works fine for it (powerline inspection is actually a lot less demanding than real estate inspection believe it or not).


Very interesting thank you! Is there some way for us to connect??


Sure my e-mail is my HN username at aeroscan.nl!


So, I for one think the flammability problem of hydrogen airships is overblown. But for the love of the above, if you're trying to inspire confidence in a hydrogen airship designed to inspect flammable fluid pipelines do not call it the "Lighter"


Wow, never thought about it that way. English is not our native language but, for our defense, it's the first time that somebody made that remark.


When you said that you were using the hydrogen as a fuel source as well, I also thought of the negative connotation of igniting it with a "lighter".

This connotation is too bad because HyLighter is a great multi-way pun (highlighting defects; going high in the air; with a lighter-than-air vehicle; based on hydrogen).


Sounds exactly like my previous company (Sterblue, YCS18) but with a blimp instead of a drone. Like, same country, same product, same (painful) clients, same vision, similar team, same startup accelerator, same market pitch etc. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17962004

With 8 years experience on this looking back, I can say:

- Good luck guys

- Be very careful to pick the right investors after demo day, that's what killed us in the end.

- You'll have to pick between selling hardware, selling software, selling service. Do not I repeat do not try to do the 3 things at once. Figure out what you are selling early and stick to it.

- The hardware does not matter much, no customer cares if you use a blimp, a drone, a satellite or other, so maybe don't make the hardware your core identity

  - If your focus is to solve customer problems, then don't tie your identity to a particular solution. 

  - If your focus is to sell blimps, then fine, but don't build custom AI for defect detection?
- Wind is already a problem for drones inspecting powerlines and wind turbines, it's going to be a real real big problem for a blimp

- Honestly happy to help you if I can


>- The hardware does not matter much, no customer cares if you use a blimp, a drone, a satellite or other, so maybe don't make the hardware your core identity

I worked at one of those drone-in-a-box startups for a few years. In my experience, some power distribution/power line operators are VERY particular about what kind of hardware you are flying near or above their infra.


Yeah, I mean, if they care, it will be about preventing you from using unproven stuff next to their lines. So even worse in this context :-/


To be fair they only care if you don't show up with a credible insurance policy that makes sure they get compensated for technology failures. Which in the context of a transmission grid operator could be several million dollars per incident.

Obviously any company will want to avoid even a tiny risk of incurring several million dollars of costs in a few seconds, so it's fair to expect the liability be on the solution provider.


Thank you so much for your message! I would love to pick your brain if you are available, is there a way for me to contact you?


You can click through to the commenter's profile https://news.ycombinator.com/user?id=crubier and from there you can find their Twitter and GitHub profiles (which contains their email).

Alternatively, since they also went through YCS18 as Sterblue, you could use YC's internal BookFace platform to ask for an introduction.


Hindenburg jokes aside, how do you ensure safety? Even if you only inspect infrastructure away from human habitation, there's still the risk of forest fires and such if there is an accident.


I've flown hydrogen balloons before (just because it was cheaper than helium--although you do need different fittings for the tank). I've also lit them on fire just to see what happend.

I don't think they're as dangerous as people think. If they ignite they go up in a whoosh, not a bang. The only debris is your payload, now falling. So as as your payload is not also made out of flammable material (as was the case with the Hindenburg) then I don't think it's any more of a fire threat than having power lines near trees is in the first place. Up is conveniently the right direction for a ball of flame.

Of course all of this goes out the window if you let it become entangled in a tree...


That's awesome! In what situation did you had the opportunity to fly a H2 balloon?

Do you have any video that you could share about the lighting on fire of the balloon?


A bunch of friends and I wanted to get video of a balloon's flight as it approached outer space, popped, and descended. In violation of FAA rules, we used a cellphone which we had embedded in a styrofoam box with hand warmers in order to prevent the battery from freezing.

We lost contact with the payload almost immediately and never recovered it, but lost enthusiasm to try a second time.

We had bought two balloons just in case we needed a second. Waited for a rainy day and took the second one camping. I wish I had grabbed a video, but some among us were overly paranoid about creating evidence.

It was just a big blue orb and a whooshing sound. Presumably there were some flaming bits of rubber involved but we weren't able to recover them (we made the tether too long, out of fear for it being more dramatic than it was, that it was hard to get a good idea of what specifically went on).

Has there ever been a burning man effigy with a lighter-than-air component? That would be a good venue for exploring the dynamics of baloon fires (it could tethered such it wasn't above anybody when it went up).


Safety is the most important thing when it comes to aerial industry. We are working with people who are manufacturing their own H2 gas balloons that litterally fly with people in it. Check it out: https://balloonfiesta.com/Gordon-Bennett-2023 There are special materials and glue that ensure safety from electricity and fire hazards (antistatic material). The people building their balloons use that kind of materials and it works!


Most people don't realize that the paint they used to seal the shell of the Hindenburg is a popular solid rocket fuel. The hydrogen was the least of their problems during that crash.


Citation needed. I googled it and it appears to be a common myth.

(Aluminum powder is used in propellant, it was used to coat the Hindenburg, therefore the Hindenburg was coated in rocket propellant.)


> We simply needed to use H2 as a lifting gas and power source. The envelope of the airship becomes the tank!

How does that work in terms of density? A 'full' tank of H2 is still substantially heavier than air and an airship hull is a lot weaker (usually...) than a pressure vessel. Can you please explain this because it seems like I am missing something.

Also, how well does the airship deal with wind?


The envelope is indeed weaker when compared to a hard carbon fiber tank. But, there is more than enough H2 in a the envelope for an entire day of flight. The airship is the most energy efficient aircraft and it's amazing how little energy it needs to fly at our cruise speed.

Concerning winds, we've made research and we aim to resist to 10 to 11m/s of wind speed. This would allow us to fly in 80% of regions of Europe, 80% of the time!


Interesting concept! Much good luck with this. Incidentally: helicopters do a lot more than just monitor, they also do repair jobs, transfer personnel and clear brush all of which might be avenues to look into.


Yeah! Helicopters make a lot of sense for now when it comes to transport heavy cargo (like for pruning trees near the lines).


How would your drone react to an unexpected bad weather/gusts (the 20% winds you want to avoid)? I guess you can’t just land anywhere ?


We have strong termination flight procedures and redundancy at this level!


If you dump hydrogen, you land.


But where ? On the power pole ? Within neighbor property ? For what I know you’re the first one to plan long distance drones (beside military), am I wrong ?


Yes, you're wrong. UAVs have crossed the Atlantic:

https://barnardmicrosystems.com/UAV/milestones/atlantic_cros...


Interesting, thanks for sharing! Though I’ll be less worried about a drone flying above the ocean than above properties and infrastructures. You’re gonna need a bunch of lawyers and public relations, but I guess the kind of industry you’ll work for can help on that.


Exactly


This is one of the best things I think I've seen on here.

Out of curiosity what kind of altitude would an actively inspecting drone be at? And what kind of support vehicles do you need? Like would it be possible for one team to co-ordinate the deployment of multiple drones from a single vehicle or they just don't fit?


Thank you!! Around 50ft to 150ft is a good range! Also, in the medium term there won't be any team co-ordinating the HyLighter on site. It will be remote pilot dealing with the object and just a driver delivering it a take off point and another one retrieving it at landing point.


Airship-sized containers of the most easily leaked inflammable substance known to man, hovering near sparking power lines, what could possibly go wrong?


Our envelope is antistatic so it reduces greatly the risks you are referring to. We can't wait to conduct a real life test of our hylighter crashing in a power line (there are places to conduct such tests in France).


Are you convinced that your antistatic envelope is the only potential source of sparks, arcs, flames or other catalysts of ignition? Are you aware of squirrels, chipmunks, birds, spiders, insects, wires, and branches?

You do say that you will stay a suitable distance away though, so that is good.


Have you ever seen sparking power lines outside of movies? Power lines don't normally spark, unless there is something seriously wrong with them.


I've seen them spark, but only in wind conditions which would themselves already be impossible for an airship to fly in.


Yes exactly, we are doing a preventive maintenance solution. So we fly whenever possible to assess the condition of the power line.


Lines?

No.

Relays and transformers?

Yes.


If they are flying into or near enough to spark (within 1 metre?) of power lines you have a bigger problem: the operator is not in control of where it is flying.


I work for a company with a very similar customer base (LiveEO), but we focus on satellite data. Your blimps look really cool and I like the storage/buoyancy idea. LiveEO actually started with drones and satellites, but quickly switched to satellite only, mostly due to regulatory issues. Not only do some countries have strict requirements on UAVs, but a lot of infrastructure companies are not crazy about the risks associated with flying them near their infra.

But, like crubier's comment, some notes and questions:

- How big is you data/ML team? you are going to be collecting loads of data, so storage and processing will be quite a feat. Or are you selling raw data?

- I hope you have quite a bit of runway. The customers you are courting are hella conservative so getting someone to take you on for an actual contract (not a PoC) is gonna take a while.

- Which geographic markets have you identified as viable given the strict regulations on beyond line of sight flight for UAVs?


Thanks for the insight. For now we have no data/ML team. Our clients know this and for now are ok with it or on with getting raw data.

We have a nice runway already but it's definitely something we watch closely.

The EU is one of the strongest market in terms of regulation. Hard regulations, strong authorities. If we success in Europe we should be able to expand everywhere. We already have the support of the French civilian aviation authority!


I'm a little surprised about the raw data. Do the customers just review the footage manually?

What is the limiting factor on your range? The video says a 20 hour mission (how many km is that roughly?). I would have suspected for a blimp that really long missions (days) would be better as it would be less work to land/refill the blimp.


Hello fellow LiveEOler on HN!


Loosely related, but I’m confused you use feets/miles. I know this forum is mostly frequented by bay’s residents but they are also engineers and scientists and will understand very well if you use metric. Also your current target is Europe. Finally, you’re French, honour your ancestors that created the SI! :)


You are entirely right sir ;)

We always use metric, it's just that we wanted to adapt to the mostly American community.


They can deal with adapting to the rest of the world.

Bonne courage !


Cool project! I worked on a hybrid airship project.

H vs He. H for the win. H gives 10% more lift than He, and you can manufacture more H. Long-term this efficiency will allow you to haul more sensor payload, or to make a more useful aircraft. H has been used as a lifting gas on other projects in the U.S., and besides, your aircraft is unmanned.

Wind concerns. Addressable, but there will be some days you'll simply be grounded due to high winds. So are helicopters, though. Long-term you may want to look at hybrid lift designs for your aircraft (add some wings for aerodynamic lift, and make it net heavier than air).

Business concerns. The HN community has given some great feedback. The sales cycle will be long, so plan accordingly.


ok! thanks for the insights!

Yeah, we're convinced that H is the way to go for LTAs.


You are leaving on the table lots of fun due to it being unmanned. How do you resist the temptation of installing a one person gondola and hop in there?

On the economics and moat: You said that it's cheaper than helicopters but would it be cheaper than manned auto-gyros/gyrocopters? What about military drones and even civilian drones which will benefit from the trillions of dollars being dumped into battery technology, that will make them capable of flying longer distances? Would blimps be competitive against those?

Finally. I want to ask about forest fires, would your blimp have the economics to be used as surveillance tool against forest fires?


Ahaha a lot of people would love to hop in there (one day maybe ;) )

We've studied a lot batteries and drones and we don't think that drones will reach the specs we can get through a lighter than air aircraft. Even for civilian helicopters, today, they have between 2h and 3h of flight time usually. Military equipment won't be used for that kind of topic.


Beside the elegance and historical significance of airships, I don't get the advantage compared to a quad drone. If multiple cameras are needed, why not launch multiple drones? Simply tell the drones to platoon with the leader.


Basically, the airship drone has more payload, more range of inspections, and less risks to fly (more visible for other users of the aerial area, and falls slowly to the ground in case of engine malfunction).


I'm guessing that a hydrogen airship can cover a significantly larger area with less power than a drone.


You can probably do multi-day flights with these things.


Energy usage is far less with an airship


The opposite is true. I would claim that even 100 drones would use less energy than one airship.


Congratulations guys! I met Josef an airport in Paris a few weeks ago and learned about your project (the YC sticker on your laptop was the ice-breaker). Best of luck on building a thriving business. :)


That's awesome! Thank you for telling us! And hi from Paris ;)


There’s a Finnish startup working on something similar: https://kelluu.com/


Yeah they are very cool! We exchanged a bit and we meet on a regular basis!


Nice video, my initial reaction aside from the hydrogen and helium being mostly non green gasses nowadays was that the efficiency of PV and battery should be better than of a fuel cell. My thought was that operation requires a good day, means sunshine and the energy could be provided by solar cells with a battery for some buffering. This thought was based on the current comparison between efficiency of BEV and H2 fuel cell cars.


Yeah it's actually something that some companies are thinking about. But the weight of the PV is too much compared to the energy it can generate.


as a very different use case, I've been wondering about drones for de-mining.

being able to hover efficiently would be a major win, and it seems like detecting mines isn't so much of a technical problem as a practical one...


That's a very good idea, we've heard about a ukrainian student who created a demining drone but for now we're on inspecting energy infra!


Particularly if you go the hardware route, might be worth exploring this as an option for utility scale solar farm inspection. Quadcopter drones often have insufficient range for the larger farms, and solar companies are increasingly making full site scans a regular part of the O&M process (they have has been used in commissioning larger sites for years).


noted! how do you know that this a regular part of the O&M?


Minor point, but if you are going to "charge a price per kilometer", then you have as much incentive as helicopters to complete the work as quickly as possible.

Edit: Just adding that the video is excellent. I was imagining that these were significantly larger than what you are using. The fact that you can transport them in a semi-trailer like that is very cool.


We have the same incentive but not at the same level. Our aircraft consumes very little energy so it adds much less costs to stay in the air longer to collect more data.

Thank you for the feedback on the video!


I'm far from expert on anything to do with the industry you're targeting or the engineering challenges you might be facing, but the idea sounds so reasonable I'm surprised it's not already a thing.

I'm curious though about the tradeoffs of using the envelope as the tank vs. some other source. I'd assume it introduces more opportunity for leaks, and you have to "oversize" the envelope to stay aloft even after you've used all the fuel necessary for a tour. Is there a situation in which it would make more sense to keep your fuel and H2 separate?

Small feedback: the rotating text on your homepage transitions just a bit too quickly.


Actually, we're not the only one who thought about it. Since the 2000's some researchers or blimp enthusiasts launched research project like this. We're trying to apply it to a strong pain point in the energy industry.

Concerning the tradeoffs. It does increase leak potential but the materials and glues are in constant improvements. And, we do not need to oversize the envelope this much because the airship is extremely energy efficient and consume very little energy (during all our flight test we are always amazed when we have 80% left of battery or H2 at the end of the flights). But yes, for now, we keep fuel and lighter than air gas separated and we will keep this possibility for a long time.

Thank you for the feedback!


Congratulations on your literal launch! Some questions:

- Does the blimp need to be in the vicinity of a base station or human operator to function?

- How fast does the blimp move?

- Any consideration of using this technology to inspect wind/solar farms?


For now yes we make flight with human pilots nearby. Soon we will do beyond visual line of sight flights!

It moves quite slowly our cruise speed is between 8 to 11 m/s.

Yeah! We've had some interest to do that!


This vehicle might be useful for 'keeping an eye on'/patrolling wildfires from a distance. Could the vehicle retain its 'set altitude' when it is buffeted by 'hot winds'?


Weren't there a couple of other companies recently using UAVs to detect and/or fight wildfires?

I wonder if there would ever be a way to get paid both to detect wildfires and to perform utility line inspections at the same time. I'm guessing this would be hard because the best altitude for the former application is probably quite a lot higher than for the latter.


I love airship ideas! In your message you don’t comment on safety and fire risk, which is what I’d bet most people want to hear about given the public perception of H2 airships.

How are you addressing safety with your design?


Safety is the most important thing when it comes to aerial industry. We are working with people who are manufacturing their own H2 gas balloons that litterally fly with people in it. Check it out: https://balloonfiesta.com/Gordon-Bennett-2023

There are special materials and glue that ensure safety from electricity and fire hazards. The people building their balloons use that kind of materials and it works!


I'm a fan of HAPS in general. Questions, out of many use cases why chose specifically in gas leakages detection? Are there any planning in the your pipeline to venture out into HAPS for internet?


No we don't planning to do HAPS because the engineering is much different actually.


How well does it tolerate lateral winds?

My impression of the power lines in my area is that the top wire is just structural. I could imagine something (lighter than air or not) crawling along it rather than floating free. Of course you'd need to only do that if you knew that the additional drag wouldn't subsequently damage the thing you're inspecting, but since you're an inspection company, that kind of assessment shouldn't be too hard.


Concerning wind effects, we aim to operate with winds up to 10m/s (we did 8,5m/s last week so it's going well!). If the winds are higher we will wait it out (exactly like other aircrafts do ie drones and helicopter in certain cases).

There are actually some startups working on robots that would hang/crawl from the lines. But, I feel like our clients like the "remote sensing" capacities and are not very much interested with (or even are afraid of) things touching their assets.


You could probably run a robot along the high voltage lines (birds sit on them all the time), but I imagine the main problem is jumping from segment to segment when you reach a pole (partially because you might accidentally ground the robot, but mostly because acrobatics are hard, especially if you're tangled up in tree limbs, etc).


Yeah going from one pylone's side to another will be hard. Especially because the components are quite fragile (like insulators).


Very interesting. I wonder how many countries will allow automated air balloons like this, this can definitely be a hazard or at risk of vandalism.


For now, our development is going well in France. We know that other companies are working in India, US, Finland.


Driving around in more rural Georgia, it's not uncommon to see street signs riddled with gunshot holes. I wonder if these airships would attract the same kind of mischief? I imagine a lot of the inspections are over quite remote areas, though, so that should be less of a problem.

Also, just out of curiosity, how far do your airships travel between refueling, given what you would consider normal conditions and a standard payload?


Exactly our first inspections are in remote areas so it should be less of a problem. But, even with those small leaks it's not that much of a problem because the airship itself does not empty that fast!

Concerning your question on range: We will easily fly an entire day without refueling (and more), basically an entire day means 200 miles.


Would a bullet not be hot enough to ignite the hydrogen? I know the Goodyear blimp takes fire regularly when moving between cities. Like you said the small leaks aren’t a big deal but bullets are hot.


Actually to create a fire you need the 3 things: Fuel: in our case H2 Heat: in our case hot bullet Oxidizer: in our case there will be only H2 is the enveloppe (O2 won't have the time to enter the envelope along with the bullet). So a fire should not start.

We are not at that stage yet, but we can't wait to test it!


Let me know if you want to come to Florida and test it haha. It’d be fun to do like up a couple test envelopes and see what happens with a few different rounds.


Regular rifle bullets are not nearly hot enough to ignite gaseous hydrogen. Only something like tracer or incendiary ammunition would be a concern for fire.


I know a bunch of folks that will take that as a challenge…


A broken light bulb or a spark on the ceiling are enough to ignite Hydrogen; and that is why facilities that process it must have ventilation.

"A covered Hydrogen filling station must have electricity for ventilation." Agree or disagree?

And what about microwave energy beaming? Can microwave wireless energy transfer cause a hole in an airship? What about freak lightning storms while inspecting high energy power lines in a balloon filled with flammable and explosive gas?

It looks like it may be possible to store Hydrogen in Sodium Bicarbonate.

There are aerospace-grade hydrogen tanks that aren't supposed to explode in a crash landing, but what about midair collision and war?

There are people working on drones that hover in midair (that do not add flight and ground risk) that efficiently use the air currents too.

I'm afraid [this airship firm] hasn't done a sufficient level of testing to determine how easily the product can become a war liability, and I don't think FAA should clear Hydrogen airships for energy infrastructure inspection.


They are in France so the FAA doesn’t apply, but you think the FAA shouldn’t approve hydrogen airships because in the event of war, attackers will not go for cities or nuclear power plants or military bases or national scale gas storage or highway bridges but will instead target hydrogen lifted blimps in remote areas?

If a small drone explodes and takes down an electricity pylon in nowheresville in the middle of a war, I reckon most people would be very grateful that’s all that happened and willing to fund drones just to draw fire from more important areas and nothing else.


What a weird set of concerns.

Civilian aircraft aren't generally expected to be able to withstand midair collision or war. Why would this drone be any different?

Most aircraft today contain some kind of power storage that can ignite dangerously; 100LL or Jet-A in the case of airplanes and helicopters and some drones, lithium-ion batteries in the case of many drones and upcoming eVTOLs (and for aux power in many modern airplanes as well).

Regulatory frameworks and engineering practices are absolutely able to be used to consider the risks of fires in energy storage systems.


If positioned in a fixed location over critical energy infrastructure , this drone is on another level.

Rockets that contain hydrogen have self-destruct, and NASA doesn't want to load a rocket with Hydrogen while astronauts are onboard on the ground; though rocket fuel hydrogen is chilled and pressurized with lots of energy.

The true cost of guarding a hydrogen blimp that's guarding the critical infrastructure? Is it as much as guarding an upriver reactor cask that's under ordinance spec?

Compared to grid scale battery farms for energy storage, would Gravitational Potential Energy and/or CAES Compressed Air Energy Storage (which are less lossy, anyway) be less of a liability if in the flight path of a slow to fixed hydrogen airship?

Aerospace-grade [hydrogen, jet fuel,] tanks are probably more impact resistant than any airship ever?

Which critical energy facilities have procedures for handling a hydrogen airship in their airspace with and without a wind event?

Gravitational Potential Energy in old mines is enough energy storage for domestic US needs FWIU, but supercapacitors or ultracapacitors may be necessary to handle renewable load spikes when the sun shines across the grid.


Sparks such as from damaged electronics are hot by the way, hence their ability to ignite flammable gases (unlike, evidently, bullets).

Why are you worried about microwaves, or a flaming gas bag during a war? Rockets seem to supersede those concerns entirely. Or the much more valuable infrastructure targets that would also be vulnerable if a craft like this was vulnerable.

Re freak storm; then it catches fire, like many other things that get struck by lightning.


Bullets cause cylinders under pressure to explode.

It is feasible that microwave power beaming or similar could affect the wind or the airship directly.

Drones are very inexpensive. Ukraine's latest are probably sufficient to cause operational failure for airships.

It is appropriate to be concerned about flaming gas bags positioned over critical energy infrastructure.

We don't know how to fly a flaming gas bag out of the way when there is a Hydrogen fire.


> Bullets cause cylinders under pressure to explode.

They don't actually - they cause pressurised containers (propane for example) to outgas but they don't cause an explosion or even ignition.

You can shoot clean through a propane tank with a 50 cal bullet and not even see (from a distance) the effect .. unless the air temp and humidty is enough to condense water about the outgassing.

Go and check out some "let's shoot a propane tank" videos - no explosions UNLESS someone rigs an ignition source (lit flare, etc).

You've been getting your 'facts' from Hollywood.


Then how did an aluminum aircraft contacting a building cause enough of a spark to cause an on-impact jet fuel explosion?

Indeed we easily could find some pre-existing videos of pressurized cylinders exploding and there being flames. I don't think you're going to convince me that flammable pressurized canisters do cannot cause thrust when punctured.

Does there have to be another existing fire for punctured [propane] tanks to rocket upward like in the movies?

Does a drone RPG carry a light? Really.


As I said, bullets don't cause pressurised propane cannisters to explode.

> aluminum aircraft contacting a building cause enough of a spark

Read the accident report - static electricity, not a bullet, not a pressurised propane container.

> Does there have to be another existing fire for punctured [propane] tanks to rocket upward like in the movies?

Usually a pulley system or another Hollywood trick.

> Does a drone RPG carry a light?

No. Also, not a bullet, it's a Rocket Propelled Grenade.

Just to clarify, here's a slow motion video of a bullet fired into an unsecured pressurised propane tank (small) with a lit flare next to it.

https://youtu.be/ptend5StNB8?t=62

You can see the tank outgassing and falling off the 44 gallon drum (doesn't "rocket into the air"), the gas eventually (in slow motion it takes a while) lights up from the lit flare and there's a dramatic fireball (burning gas) but no explosion as such - after all is over and done with the propane tank will look a little singed, have two holes in it, but won't look "exploded".

There are other videos with no flares .. much the same happens save there are no fireballs, the gas just expels and expands out into the atmosphere.


So the scenarios should include:

- static electricity

- lightning

- flame

- puncture

- midair collision

- birds, flying fish

- acts of war: projectiles, flames, jeers

- solar flares; Carrington events; EMP

- meteors, meteorites

- combinations thereof; static + puncture,

- chance presence of combustible gases and particulates; [grain dust,] + spark/static


Your focus is on the wrong thing. The hypothetical gas bag is not the vulnerability - an enemy having direct access to your energy infrastructure is your vulnerability in this scenario.

And, frankly, flaming gas bag is not a serious threat. It would be neat to see, but a small undirected hydrogen fueled fire without access to any other fuel source is not scary. I'd be more concerned about the body of the deflated vessel causing a short than anything


"Procedure(s) for removing a [flaming] dirigible from high energy power lines, hangar masts, and other energy infrastructure" would be a good start


Could an airship or similar (maybe over an ocean) capture atmospheric helium?

There is a shortage of Helium (and 3He and 4He for fusion), which the sun makes out of Hydrogen with heat and radiation from fusion and fission.


There is no significant amount of atmospheric helium. It's not something that can captured.

Our helium supplies come from natural gas wells. In some areas the natural gas contains enough helium to be worth separating and storing.


Basically no. Its very small, not very reactive, and I guess also has a tendency to escape the atmosphere and trail off into the void.


It is surprisingly difficult to get pure hydrogen to burn. The DOE safety sheet [0] lists an upper flammability limit of 74% which matches my experience pretty well. In other words: gunshots would most likely just cause leakage.

[0] https://www1.eere.energy.gov/hydrogenandfuelcells/pdfs/h2_sa...


But what about after they leak? Wouldn't the hydrogen then mix with air and get below 74%?


If this is set up similar to other LTA airships (simplified, its bags of air contained by the outer skin with a structure supported by a very light airframe), then a wayward bullet might pierce one or two of these cells - which a certain number of these are allowed to deflate before problems begin. Also, most shot-sign mischief is carried out by shotgun and the max vertical distance it can travel is considerably less than 1000ft.


Yeah, I wasn't thinking full Hindenberg, just damage would be expensive enough…


Shooting the thing and watching it come down might be fun enough for some.


Fuel, Oxygen, Spark.

You need all three.


It is more complicated. You also need fuel/oxygen ratios that allow for sustained burning, else any fire extinguishes quickly. And heat. There are many fuels that just don't burn unless you heat them up and control their burning to heat the incoming fuel.


thank you for the insight, that's very interesting


> Driving around in more rural Georgia, it's not uncommon to see street signs riddled with gunshot holes.

My first thought as well. You'd likely need to make it a federal felony to shoot one and have an ad campaign to make it well known or I can't see these lasting 6 months in a rural setting.

That's not just a southern thing. I see the same all over the country.


The implication is that it's not a federal felony to fire a weapon at a flying aircraft? I know that there are different laws in different countries, but I can't imagine that would be legal, even in the United States!

Unfortunately it is also exceedingly likely that the folks who shoot at road signs as their particular outrage against government are most likely to think that surveillance drones are there to spy on them, and not inspect infrastructure. I don't think regulations or laws matter to those folks.


There are open questions around the limits of airspace below the FAA ceiling and property lines. There's been multiple cases in the US of people intentionally shooting down drones operating above their property, including in urban areas, and it has not yet been heard by the Supreme Court. Common Law held that property owners controlled their property from the Earth to the Heavens, which is inclusive of airspace. The current law in the US says that property owners control their airspace within their "reasonable control".

I am not a lawyer, but is is a very open question if you're flying low enough someone can visually sight you and shoot you down over their property, whether or not that this is a violation of the law /for unmanned vehicles/. Drones in particular have become a serious nuisance and many property owners have taken actions against them in the US triggering court cases, most of which haven't yet reached their conclusion.

EDIT to add that the rules here even vary by state in the US, in some states you own 83 feet over your property of airspace, in others it could be as much as 400 feet (above 400 feet is controlled airspace under the jurisdiction of the FAA). Generally speaking, shooting any aircraft, jamming any radio signal, or shining laser pointers on any aircraft is already federally illegal in the US and violates FAA/FCC regulations, but it's not clear that these regulations are actually constitutional and enforceable, or that it cannot be an act of self-defense to shoot down a low-flying aircraft intruding on your property.


> Unfortunately it is also exceedingly likely that the folks who shoot at road signs as their particular outrage against government are most likely to think that surveillance drones are there to spy on them, and not inspect infrastructure.

I think you're conflating issues. At least where I grew up, people didn't shoot road signs out of anger at the government. They did it out of boredom. Sometimes as a competition with friends, sometimes alone. I never partook myself.


You are right! As we are in Europe we fill like this will be less of an issue than in the US.

Nevertheless, we will soon test what happened when we shout our flying HyLighters.


For a different perspective; I suspect they'd be fine in the US. Signs and drones are different. The former is petty vandalism, so is the latter sometimes but others you might feel pretty justified in removing the little spy camera from your space.

But a blimp, high up and clearly doing something? Nah, it'd be fine.


I have witnessed man's desire to shoot anything that flies. It was at a shooting range in the military, my group (ie eight soldiers) each had a full clip and were supposed to do target practice. Suddenly two unsuspicious ducks passed, flying at 2 meters from the ground, at a very low speed. Everybody without exception emptied their clip on these birds (all 100-ish bullets missed fortunately, so good for the Dutch army).

Imagine the bonus is a ball of fire in the sky for the winning shot!


[flagged]


> This seems like a uniquely american problem. Mitigation: They could focus on the rest of the world, instead.

Please don't post nationalistic flamebait (regardless of nation). We've had to ask you this more than once before.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


Please don't overestimate the amplitude of said 'nationalistic flamebait'. I have felt this way about your 'feedback' before.

Note: The rate limiting you have imposed on my user meant that I had to wait several hours to post this reply.


Sorry, but that's like responding to "please don't drop a lit match in a dry forest" with "but it was just a little match".

We rate limit accounts when they post too many low-quality comments and/or get involved in flamewars. Unfortunately your account has a history of doing that, so we've rate limited it. If you build up a track record of using HN as intended, you'd be welcome to email hn@ycombinator.com and we'll be happy to take a look and hopefully remove the rate limit.


My point of view:

This is bullshit.

I spent a lot of time attempting to contribute quality content here. I feel like you didn't dig deep enough in what I've contributed earlier before deciding that a particular 'nationalistic' comment about the shootings in the US meant that I should be shut down.

Examples of pieces I'm proud of:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=37275940

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=37258787

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=37247246

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=37216687

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=36170885

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=35831689


That's good, but following the rules most of the time doesn't make it ok to break them the rest of the time. We have to moderate based on the worst things people post, not the best things.


> We have to moderate based on the worst things people post, not the best things.

Do you though? Shouldn't it be a balance?

I'm still not exactly sure why I can only post about 5 comments/24h.


[flagged]


Please stop posting regional flamebait and whatever else this is. Please see https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=37298978 also.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


This example could quite literally be my nextdoor neighbor. He was ranting and raving to me the other night about the deep state, george soros, how hard he was going to "pray for me" after learning I got vaccinated, etc... If a big white balloon was flying around inspecting power lines I can guarantee he would say something like this and might shoot it. People all over the country would. I think it is inappropriate (and arguably dangerous) to try and pretend that this issue does not exist. Not flamebait. This form of mental illness is its' own pandemic at this point.


While I agree that yes, there will definitely be people who shoot at them, same as shoot at DJI drones, there is no reason to disparage an entire group of people into a caricature.


Why not? We’re surrounded by this behavior it’s not simply a caricature.


Double points if you hit it with something incendiary so that the hydrogen ignites.


What do you charge per kilometer, and what does the competition charge?


Everything really depends on the payload, the sensors that are used. The more expensive the payload, the higher the price. For instance, helicopters: $30-$40 for visual inspection and pictures but it gets up to $70-$100 with regular LiDARs When we reach industrial scale deployment we aim to be at the same cost as competition, with no carbon footprint (which has value for our clients) and better data quality.


Can you get cheaper?

On the surface this looks like a box ticking exercise, low cost wins. Is that not correct?

What does better quality data actually do for the customer?


No actually utilities have more and more needs concerning data quality and data type. Before the needed to make visual inspections only. Now they have to conduct multispectral inspections involving lidar, infrared, leak detection. All of this complexity data collection and they now need an efficient solution that can do all of these at once.


To what end do they need lidar/infrared data? Like, what are they actually trying to do? Meet regulatory compliance?

And what does "more efficient" mean in this context?

I guess in some sense I'm saying that shouldn't the explanation for this be something like: "owners of gas pipelines need to meet regulations imposed by Federal Agency X. They are currently spending $y dollars on it. Using our product they can be compliant and only spend (y-large number)."

or: "owners of gas piplines are at risk of multi-billion dollar fines and lawsuits. Right now they can't properly measure where they are leaking gas. Our solution lets them find the problem spots and only costs $y per year for them to mitigate their large risk"


This is very cool. I wonder how much each of those airships cost?


Good luck! There’s similar company based in Finland, Kelluu Airships, kelluu.com Been following them couple of years and have dreamt of working for them some day.


Yes! We know them, they are nice people!!


What does "gyroscope engine" is supposed to mean?


It's an engine that's mounted on a gyroscope. Which means that the propeller can turn in every direction.


Gyroscope?


"Gimballed" might be a better term for it. The airship would work by thrust vector control: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thrust_vectoring


I feel like blimps wouldn’t be anywhere near as noisy as planes so people on flight routes might really appreciate that.

Hopefully one day we can get passenger blimps.


Yeah, it's crazy how it's less noisy even compared to small drones simply because our propellers turn slower (because we don't need them to hover)


Noob Question: What happens when the area you are inspecting has a wildfire risk or develops a wildfire risk while HyLighter is in the air?


I'm not sure I understand your question, what do you mean "what happens" ?


Maybe the question is "can you avoid contributing to the risk of igniting a wildfire?".

Suppose you have a crash (due to a leak or something?); is there a high danger that you would set off a wildfire if you landed in an area of dry vegetation?

People are very conscious of this because it's wildfire season right now in many places, and electrical utilities (some of your customers) are increasingly being accused of having a role in triggering wildfires. Although in some cases that involves their failure to perform adequate inspections, so you would probably be helping reduce that risk overall by performing useful and rapid inspections.


To clarify, I meant if there is a ship in the air and there is a fire does it increase the risk for the ship? Also does the ship increase the risk of a wildfire in some extreme weather conditions?


Fire is not a problem for us. We can quickly move out of fumes or hot winds from the ground, we can go higher to observe its evolution. The challenge would be wind. Windy days are the ones that are most at risk of wildfires.


This is a great project!

Hydrogen is highly flammable and can be explosive when it comes into contact with an ignition source in the presence of oxygen.


Thank you!

You are right. That's why we make sure that there is no mix of H2 and O2 inside the envelope.


> We have a H2 tank and fuel cell transforming H2 into power for all the systems

This made me chuckle. All-in on hydrogen, huh?


I'm sorry I did not understand. Airships are a very relevant use case for H2.


How do you prevent it from, you know, catching fire and exploding?


I don't understand why it would catch fire and explode without any reason... Plus H2, if not pressurized does not explode is burns quickly upwards. Somebody who experimented this explained it in the comments.


fyi - your fancy scrolling message box at the top of your homepage ("Bringing methane leaks to zero" etc.) is almost impossible to read on my laptop.


Thank you for the feedback! Will change that quickly!


You should name your flagship the Hindenburg.


Ahah! Or Pheonix: the airship reborn from the ashes. For now, it's simply the HyLighter


Oh, the robotity!


NICE work!


Thank you!!


Very cool, good luck!


Thank you very much!


Hmm. Bags of hydrogen being blown into electrical distribution equipment. It sounds challenging.


It is indeed challenging! But our envelope will be antistatic so it will reduce ignition risks. And we are working at a safe distance from the lines.


Probably a bad idea, but just a random thought: what if there were emergency pressurized canisters of something inert like no2 that could dilute the hydrogen in case of a failure so they could protect surrounding things from fire damage?


I think it might be to heavy for our use case.


well, you hope to stay at a safe distance, right? how difficult is it to deal with wind (or even precipitation)?

having tight flight rules (eg to deal with wind) would be a problem in a lot of locations...


We can withstand winds up to 10-11m/s. If there is more winds or rain that is forecasted then we'll just wait it out.


This is probably a dumb question but why not regular drones?


"There are no dumb questions" - Oogway

Regular drones are awesome to make short missions (you need to check one electrical pylone or a small bridge - take a drone). But on bigger scale they don't have enough range to do this kind of operations. Also, they don't have enough payload. You can only fly with one camera, when the utilities need HQ camera, infrared, LiDAR etc. That's why they need to keep using helicopters.


Why not more drones then?

Sorta like how railroads figured out it was much simpler operationally to have fewer types of locomotives, and use multiples on larger trains, rather than create dinosaurs like the DDA40x (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EMD_DDA40X) that were ONLY useful in narrow circumstances.


There are approx 53 million miles of energy infrastructure on the planet (a new report was published today).

Regular drones can't be used to inspect that much (too many drones required, too many pilots, too much aerial and ground risk - when regular drone fall they are lethal).


Drones are a commodity product where economies of scale have brought prices way down while capabilities have gone way up.

Airships won’t scale like that. You don’t have the benefit of tons of media companies buying airships to use as camera platforms.


Client should pay at least 3x times as much to get the same service from drones. Again, it's not scalable using drones that's why our clients keep using helicopter on 90% of their missions.


And in ten years when drones are 5 times as capable and cost half?


> hydrogen airships to inspect power lines

Is this a joke? Isn't there a bit of a, uh, fire hazard? Aren't airships generally less controllable when affected by wind?


There is a fire hazard indeed! Exactly like with helicopters and their fuel. We need to respect strong process to deal with H2 in safe way.

Concerning wind effects, we aim to operate with winds up to 10m/s (we did 8,5m/s last week so it's going well!). If the winds are higher we will wait it out (exactly like other aircrafts do ie drones and helicopter in certain cases).


This was the question I wanted answered first haha




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