A big idea takes flight

It’s bigger than a football field, making it the world’s largest aircraft (about 60 feet longer than an Airbus A380). It is a mixture of aeroplane, airship, helicopter and hovercraft. It’s greener and quieter than other air transport. Oh, and a larger version is already in prototype. And it’s all being designed and built in Bedfordshire.

The helium-filled Airlander is the creation of Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), a seven-year-old company that itself was born out of decades of British innovation and research in Lighter Than Air (LTA) craft.

HAV was able to make the step from initial prototype to the manufacture and test flight thanks to a 2010 contract from the US Department of Defence. Led by Northrop Grumman, the aim was to create a so-called Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) – a super-sized surveillance aircraft that had the capability of spending days in the air on a single mission.

The first test flight of the Airlander took place in August 2012. But in 2013, budget cuts led to the cancellation of the project. HAV bought it back from the DoD at effectively scrap value.

“We remain on very good terms with the US Department of Defence,” says HAV’s communications director Chris Daniels. “We continue to share data with them and we expect our dialogue to bear fruit in the future.”

So the Airlander came back to the UK, where it lives in a giant hangar in Cardington, Bedfordshire. It’s there because it’s is the only place in the UK that can house it, having been built for airship manufacture in 1915.

One hundred years ago, Bedfordshire was at the cutting edge of aviation. Now it is again. 

Airlander pic 2

At present, Airlander 10 can carry up to ten tonnes and can stay airborne for up to five days. It is envisaged that Airlander 10 might be used for surveillance and communications, for filming, research and survey work.

However, there is (literally) a bigger picture. HAV’s aim is to transform and disrupt the cargo market by building a craft that will be able to carry 50 tonnes – the Airlander 50.

This enormous construction will be able to transport goods and equipment literally to all corners of the earth. It can land on water, desert or ice, enabling access to remote and inaccessible places, from the jungles of Africa to the icy terrain of Canada.

“All the studies indicate that there is a market for up to 1,000 of these craft,” says Daniels.

That’s because Airlander 50 transforms a key metric for transportation: the cost per tonne kilometre (ie. the amount it costs to carry one tonne over one kilometre). For example, a mining company could slash the costs of transporting ore from a remote mine to a processing plant.

By delivering point to point, it will also reduce the frictional costs of transportation. The more borders and ports through which a cargo has to pass, the more it incurs bureaucracy and paperwork and, in many cases, the greater possibility of spoilage and theft of goods. Airlander will be able to travel from source to site. And its environmental credentials mean that it can claim to be the greenest form of cargo transport.

Funding for prototyping

It is for the prototyping and broad technological development of Airlander 50 that HAV secured £2.5m from Innovate UK alongside investment from a group of private investors. (One of the investors is Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of Iron Maiden, whose presence on the shareholder register gives literal rock star status to the venture.)

This really is a British SME with the potential to lead the world in its field.

The development is being led by HAV with other world-class British firms including avionics experts Bluebear Systems and materials company Forward Composites and specialist teams from Cranfield, Liverpool and Sheffield universities.

Funding to unlock private investment

Hybrid Air Vehicles has also been the recipient of a significant grant from the Regional Growth Fund, in one of 56 new awards announced on 12 February 2015. The backing immediately unlocked equity investment from private individuals.

In May, HAV closed a third equity raising round through the Crowdcube crowdfunding platform, securing £2.36m and adding a further 983 shareholders to its register. This enabled HAV to win matched funding for €2.5m of EU grants from the Horizon 2020 scheme.
This means that HAV can formally start its “return to flight” programme. The process of gaining permission and certification to fly is under way. Specialist engineers are being hired to build the craft – the workforce will more than double in size this year to approximately 80. Contracts are being signed, most of them with other British firms.
Stephen McGlennan, the CEO of HAV, is impressed and grateful for the support that the venture has received from the Government. “It has been unbelievably helpful,” he says.
And he is not just referring to the funding grants. He points to the work of the British Embassy and MoD staff in Washington in the initial negotiations with the US Department of Defense, the advantages of the patent box legislation and the support that HAV is getting from UK Export Finance.

Finding funding

Visit Innovate UK to learn more about applying for R&D funding.

Launched in 2010, the Regional Growth Fund stimulates enterprise across the country by providing grants to projects and programmes with significant potential for economic growth,​leveraging in private sector investment and creating or safeguarding jobs. Read about other companies who have benefitted from RGF funding.

Use the My Business Support tool to get a report of resources and schemes to start or support your business.

Find more information on the sources of finance available to your business. The Business Finance Guide sets out the full range of finance options.