solarship Posts

Role of Hydrogen in the Future of Aviation

When Solar Ship completed its flight of a hydrogen-inflated airship prototype inside our testing lab, it freaked a few people out. People are afraid of hydrogen. But there is a difference between fear and danger. Hydrogen flights are an important milestone on the path to a full-scale airship operating commercially.

There are only two practical options for airship gas: hydrogen or helium. Hydrogen is flammable, helium is not. Hydrogen is inherently less safe than helium, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently unsafe, or that it cannot be used safely. A key part of any product development involving flammable materials is figuring out how to make it safe. 

Solar Ship is taking a step-by-step approach, at each step proving hydrogen safety to ourselves, our investors, customers and the public. The first step was testing material used to build the airship’s envelope, to ensure it wouldn’t create any static shocks that could ignite the hydrogen. The next step was destructive testing, where researchers tried different ways to ignite a balloon and observe how it burns. Our team of engineers, always eager to blow things up, described the results as “boringly safe”. Once that baseline of safety was established, we proceeded with inflating and flying a small prototype airship. Now that this has been done safely, we’re moving on to a larger scale. With each step we gain believers in hydrogen safety.

This process builds a body of evidence we can use to make others more confident in hydrogen. People are fearful of the unfamiliar. A decade ago the launch of the modern electric vehicle (EV) suffered a major blow after an EV caught fire following a routine crash test, creating concerns that EVs can unpredictably burst into flames. These days, when EVs are much more familiar to the average person, those concerns seem ridiculous. It took time to build public trust in EVs; it will take time to build trust in hydrogen fuel cell EVs. And it will take time to build trust in hydrogen aircraft. 

Bit by bit we’re building that trust.

Why do we bother? Why not just use helium? For starters helium costs up to 20x more, adding millions to the cost of a large airship and potentially costing more than the airship itself. Secondly, helium is a scarce commodity that cannot be produced on site and must be transported to wherever an airship operates. Airships are often designed for remote areas, making helium transportation challenging and expensive. In many remote areas, you cannot get helium at all.. Hydrogen can be produced on site anywhere with renewable energy and an electrolyzer. Finally, helium is heavier than hydrogen and takes up payload capacity. An airship inflated with hydrogen might have 10 tonnes available for cargo or passengers, while that same airship inflated with helium might have 9 tonnes available. For these reasons safely-managed hydrogen is the only commercially feasible option.

Hydrogen also has a broader role to play in aviation, replacing fuel and engines with hydrogen, fuel cells and electric motors as the world transitions to low carbon transportation. Unlike electric cars, which predominantly use batteries, weight is critical for aircraft and a hydrogen fuel cell system can provide 3x as much useful energy as a battery system with the same weight. Neither can match the performance of conventional engines in conventional aircraft, but hydrogen is the most promising candidate for zero emission flight. This is why companies like Solar Ship, ZeroAvia, Airbus and others are building their future designs around hydrogen propulsion systems. New innovation in unconventional aircraft opens new possibilities to far outperform conventional engines. Hydrogen has three times the energy density of fossil fuel – for innovators, hydrogen offers exciting possibilities.  

Hydrogen will play a critical role in the future of aviation. 

Step by step, Solar Ship is working to make that future a reality.

Solar Ship Aerostats versus Low Earth Orbit Satellites

An exciting technology has emerged over the past few years from companies, such as OneWeb, SpaceX Starlink, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and Telesat LEO working on deploying Low Earth Orbit satellites for data communications.  Earth’s orbits in space are broken up into three layers; Low Earth Orbit, Medium Earth Orbit and Geostationary Earth Orbit. GEO is the furthest away at about 35,000 kms while LEO is around 800 kms from the surface.

LEO satellites have much lower network round trip latencies than GEO satellites because they are closer to the ground. Radio waves travel at the speed of light so the closer the satellite is to you, the quicker your data response. This means data communications can be as much as 50 times faster than with GEO satellites. Lower latencies drastically improve network and communication performance. 

Solar Ship makes aerostats able to provide communications up to 100 kms radius and up to 1.4 Gbs bandwidth while being only hundreds of meters above the ground. This provides a low cost and low latency data communications service for end users in remote areas. Real world latencies between aerostats are in the 1-3ms range. 

Solar Ship can build a robust and self-reliant aerostat communications system using commercial off the shelf products and install it in remote locations anywhere in the world in months using ground-based aerostats as opposed to years with LEO satellites.

SolarShip Aerostat Network

LEO satellites only work when there is seamless or full coverage over an area. The reason for this is that each satellite is only visible to the ground antenna for 5 to 10 minutes at a time before the ground antenna has to switch to the next satellite. Since each satellite has to orbit the earth about every 90 minutes which means the ground antenna has to switch to a new satellite up to 12 times an hour. If the constellation is not fully built, then there will be gaps in the network where the ground antenna won’t be able to connect to a satellite. Ground antennas that can track the satellite when it is moving at about 27,000 kph are also needed. Ground tracking antennas can be mechanically or electrically steered, but they are expensive. They range from $5,000 USD to deliver 128 kbs, or up to $100,000 USD for 600 Mbs. It will be several years before antennas are cheap enough to compete against existing LTE or Microwave Customer Premise Equipment antennas which cost around $120 USD. 

Solar Ship aerostats are stationary and fixed to the ground, so ground antennas only need to connect to the nearest aerostat for constant and reliable communications using LTE or microwave wireless technology.

While we are many years away from seeing the cost of LEO internet services come down, the remote areas of the world need connectivity now, particularly in Canada’s north and in many parts of Africa. LEO providers will be focusing on corporate, government, and military customers for the next several years because they need to cover their build costs. 

It is not a question of either/or, but rather the right tool for the job in a rapidly changing world where the importance of connecting to the global economy from remote areas is growing in urgency. LEO will be very useful to trunk broadband to an area where the service can be distributed to members of a community using LTE or Microwave broadband. At Solar Ship, we are developing mesh networks of aerostats for remote areas and working with industry leaders to provide connectivity to remote parts of Canada and Africa. COVID has taught us all that connectivity is a necessity, not a luxury. The more ways we can connect people, the more we can save lives and solve problems.

GRADUATING DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

As the COVID pandemic started to take hold, I was a new graduate from an International Business program looking to have positive impact on the world. Having a deep belief in the environmental and social benefits of building a green economy, I was in search of relevant career opportunities. With my focus on the cleantech and renewable energy sectors, I came across Solar Ship Inc., an emissions-free aviation company whose vision and initiative stood out to me. With the decarbonization of industries worldwide being identified as a common goal for my generation, being able to actively participate in facilitating the transition was an opportunity that I did not want to miss.

After several conversations with Jay Godsall, Founder and CEO of Solar Ship Inc., I was welcomed to the team and put to work in an inspiring fashion. My first project was the MAKT electric propulsion system joint venture with Zenair, in which I have been incorporated top-to-bottom throughout the decision-making process. The tasks given to me have ranged from shortlisting my favourite names for the brand to comprising a competitor landscape profiling to international market research and analysis.

During my internship, I had the opportunity to visit the company hangar to see a demonstration of the MAKT electric propulsion system. The experience of seeing the capabilities of the system up close and in person was exhilarating. Not only did it exceed my expectations, but it also further installed my belief in an electric aviation future.

Another amazing experience during my internship included a video conference call with the executive team of Solar Ship Inc. and a prospective business partner located in the south-central African country of Malawi. Coming from an academic background of geography and international business, I thoroughly enjoyed participating in a meeting of such global magnitude. Having your questions, concerns, and ideas for the business being heard and reflected on by executives across multiple countries was quite the confidence builder.

The work that I have been putting together throughout the internship has helped to identify and quantify various international market conditions with a big focus on Sub-Saharan Africa. Looking into everything from determining the best industry applications, demographics, geographic, and economic regions to focus on for entry, to researching governmental publications and press releases regarding new initiatives to support electrifying transportation, the work has brought me to the zenith of the rising electric propulsion system industry.

Working towards a common good, with an intelligent group of people, has been an adventurous experience in which I would recommend to any prospective students or working professionals in search of starting a career in the cutting-edge cleantech and electric transportation industry.

Solar Ship’s Hybrid Airship Design made to Deliver Scalability

Many of us live in areas where access to life’s necessities is a trivial concept. We take for granted our ease of access to critical needs such as food, medicine, and our connection to the world and it can be difficult to conceptualize the challenges faced by those that call remote communities their home. Just as one’s lifestyle must adapt to the realities of a remote community, so too must the transportation solutions that serve the people. Solar Ship’s design philosophy is centred around self reliance and infrastructure independence. Use of renewable resources gives plenty of opportunities to abide by these philosophies while fulfilling the needs of these communities.

Photovoltaics are not just our namesake, they’re a lifeline. Solar panels allow our cargo aircraft to bring along with it the electrical infrastructure that may be missing at a point of need. On the ground, life saving medicine and goods will be delivered while locals take time to tap in to our portable electrical grid. Batteries are recharged during a brief stay while we prepare for the return trip home.

Flight by pure solar power input has been achieved by very few and with limited useful load. Solar Ship’s hybrid airship design is made to deliver scalability and has been optimized with the use of computational aerodynamics tools in collaboration with the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS). Solar Ship’s delta wing planform is an ideal shape to maximize aerostatics lift to improve cargo capacity, to maximize surface area to improve solar panel performance, and to minimize drag to deliver performance.

Read more about our solar powered hybrid airship in our recent publication in the AIAA Journal of Aircraft: https://arc.aiaa.org/doi/abs/10.2514/1.C035463

Meet The Nabila – Fossil Fuel Free Aircraft

Meet the Nabila, Solar Ship’s latest aircraft. With a namesake that means “born to nobility,” this ship is the firstborn in our new generation of aircraft, and first in our scalable line of Wolverine aircraft. It is another step forward in our mission to deliver fossil fuel free cargo aircraft able to service remote areas. While the Nabila is the size of a compact car, the Wolverines modeled after it will carry several tonnes of supplies to those in need.

Carefully refined with computer models before its manufacture, the Nabila wing’s new shape has led to improved stability, reduced cross-wind sensitivity, and greater control authority. It is also designed to achieve a higher lift-to-drag ratio, a measure of aerodynamic efficiency. It should go without saying that the Nabila is powered entirely by electricity.

The Nabila program represents a way for Solar Ship to continue accelerating its research and development safely, yet at a rapid pace. Where most Solar Ship aircraft built so far have been manned, the Nabila is controlled remotely from the ground, allowing us to build, modify and fly our new designs at a smaller scale with faster turnarounds and at reduced costs. Comprehensive telemetry allows us to validate our flight data against our engineering models, helping us to learn more and make improvements more quickly than ever before.

This approach has let our team build and test multiple aircraft in parallel, and helps us to take the dozens of ideas and improvements off the drawing boards and test benches and put them onto real, flying aircraft for evaluation. Different configurations and features compete directly against each other, with the best elements making their way onto the next aircraft.

Already the Nabila’s flight performance has earned praise from several former Air Force pilots, who no doubt are looking forward to the Wolverine that they can fly themselves. In the meantime, the Nabila will continue doing its work with multiple configurations competing to prove the best ideas for the next generation of Solar Ship technology, heralding the fossil fuel free future of aviation.