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The world's biggest aircraft is floating but not yet flying

The Airlander 10 is a prototype hybrid airship in need of buyers

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When you hear all the arguments in favor of bringing back airships — that they’re safe, efficient, economical — the prospect sounds appealing, even logical. But when you actually see one in person, it’s hard to think of anything apart from how fantastical and surreal they look. Case in point is the Airlander 10, a prototype airship built by UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) that’s 302-feet long, can carry ten metric tons of cargo, and is capable of staying aloft, uncrewed, for up to three weeks at a time. HAV has been teasing the development of the Airlander 10 for years, but earlier this week unveiled the finished craft with engines and cabin attached, looking for buyers.

Walking underneath its canopy, the Airlander 10 looms overhead as solid as a building. But reach out and prod the material above and you’re reminded that this is just a massive bag of air and inert helium (albeit a bag made of a triple-layer weave of carbon fiber, mylar, and kevlar). It feels like a bouncy castle when you poke it, but even if you did tear the fabric, there’d be hardly any damage. The million cubic feet of helium inside the craft isn’t pressurized, so it loses gas extremely slowly. (The leak-rate without holes is around 10 percent a year.)

Airlander 10 fully assembled

The Airlander has four engines — two on the rear and one on either side. But 40 percent of the vehicle's lift is provided by the shape of the hull.

"You could put a hundred bullet holes in this, and you’d still fly for four or five hours before it became necessary to come back down," Mike Durham, HAV’s chief engineer, tells The Verge. "They’re very damage tolerant. I could lose an engine — I could lose three." Durham says that in a worse case scenario you just float to the ground, with one of the craft’s four diesel-powered, V8 engines able to steer it to safety.

And the Airlander 10 can land pretty much anywhere it needs to, with its cushioned skids meaning you don't have to find an airport. "Anywhere flatish will do," explains Chris Daniels, HAV’s head of partnerships and communication. "You can land and take off and carry cargo in remote areas. That makes [the Airlander] perfect for search and rescue, for surveillance, monitoring — perhaps climate change research or searching for missing people."

The craft was originally designed by HAV for the US Army’s Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle program as a platform for surveillance. It's built for endurance missions and costs little to run — just 10 percent "like-for-like fuel burn and operating costs as a helicopter," says Durham, and about a third of an airplane's running costs. In 2012 it took its first test flight, but the project was scrapped that same year because of defense cuts as the war in Afghanistan wound down. In 2013, HAV bought the prototype back for $300,000 and began looking for investment. The company has turned the US Army’s loss into its gain, receiving millions in grants from both the European Union and the UK government.

HAV has managed to make the most of the aircraft's visual appeal too, although the Airlander 10's informal nickname among Verge staff — "the butt blimp" — explains some of the attention it gets. "We're well aware what it looks like," laughs Daniels. "We can't do anything about that. [But] we're not worried about it at the moment. Everyone's looking at it from a short angle and from below. As soon as we take it outside you'll see the sleekness and the aerodynamic shape and the whole bum thing will go away."

Despite the attention though, HAV has yet to sell a single vehicle — with an estimated price tag of $35 million. Daniels tells The Verge that HAV has a number of interested buyers, but that firms are waiting to see the Airlander 10’s first test flights later this year before they commit to anything. "There’s a number of militaries around the world [that are interested], but we can’t say who," says Daniels. "Each trial, we think, will lead to orders, but because this is brand new, it’s very unlikely anyone is going to order it without testing it out. This will be a trials-and-demos aircraft the whole of its life, and as soon as we get orders, we move into the production phase."

Airlander 10 fully assembled

The current cabin on the Airlander 10 is small, but larger structures stretching the length of the aircraft could be installed.

By 2018, HAV wants to start "mass" production of the Airlander, aiming to manufacture six aircraft a year. An independent study commissioned by the company suggests a potential demand for around 600 hybrid airships around the world over the next 20 years, creating a marketplace worth $50 billion. US military contractor Lockheed Martin has apparently seen the appeal, and is working on its own hybrid airships. Daniels tells The Verge that HAV welcomes the competition, and that it just proves that the concept and the potential benefits are all sound.

As well as potential military applications, HAV thinks the Airlander would be perfect as a luxury cruiser. The cabin on this prototype vehicle is small, but it could easily be extended to two and a half times its length, kitted out with seating, a bar, and glass viewing panels for sightseeing trips. A proposed bigger brother for the craft (the Airlander 50 — with five times the carrying capacity) could even fit suites of luxury rooms inside the bottom of the inflated hull. Andy Barton, the company’s head of commercial and business development, suggests the craft could be chartered for flights out over the grand canyon, or airborne safaris in Africa.

Wandering around the Airlander 10, it's hard not to feel like this might be the future of the craft — a luxury toy for the world's megarich. After all, if the world's most expensive yachts can costs upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars, $35 million for the Airlander 10 (before you add in your gold-plated bathtubs, of course) seems like a bargain. HAV, though, has to wait for the vehicle's first test flights before it knows if it's got a winner on its hands. For the moment, the dream of bringing back the airship isn't completely aloft, but it's certainly afloat — just a few meters above the ground.

Airlander 10 fully assembled