Up, Up and Away

By Catherine
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By Catherine Bolgar

What’s faster than a ship or train, more eco-friendly than a plane, and doesn’t use roads, rails or ports? Huge airships, which may soon ferry cargo from point to point.

“A state-of-the-art logistics system is always dependent on infrastructure,” says Igor Pasternak, chief executive and founder of Worldwide Aeros Corp., a Montebello, California company developing a cargo airship called the Aeroscraft, which would be bigger than any current plane. “We don’t have a problem with trains; we have a problem with how far and where the rail goes. We don’t have a problem with trucks; we have a problem with enough roads. We don’t have a problem with ships; the problem is ports.”

Airships “will create a new transportation system. Air is the ocean and the port can be anywhere. You can reach any point from any other point. It will be a new way of living,” he says.

The Aeroscraft isn’t like the familiar blimps, although the shape is similar. The exterior is made of a rigid shell of fiberglass and carbon-fiber composite about two millimeters thick, similar to an airplane.

That means that although the Aeroscraft looks like a giant balloon, it wouldn’t fare any worse than a plane in a collision with, say, a bird. “It isn’t sensitive,” Mr. Pasternak says. “You could have a huge hole but you wouldn’t lose helium fast because we don’t keep the helium under pressure. A leak would be slow. As the pressure drops outside, it also drops inside.”

The Aeroscraft cargo models are huge: 169 meters to 280 meters long (555 feet to 920 feet), 54 meters to 108 meters wide (177 feet to 355 feet) and 36 meters to 65 meters tall (120 feet to 215 feet).
photoupdateInside, separate containers, made of high-performance multilayer fabric, hold nonflammable helium. The Aeroscraft operates like a submarine in order to land, Mr. Pasternak says. The pilot compresses the helium to make it heavier than air, and fills the empty space with outside air for ballast.

This technique solves airships’ biggest problem: if you unload 100 tons of cargo, you suddenly have 100 tons of lift, which must be offset with ballast. “It was practically impossible,” Mr. Pasternak says. “It’s why we have no cargo airships, even though they were invented before airplanes.”

Aeros’s technology allows its airship to take off vertically, like a helicopter, or hover for hours over a point on the ground without having to be tied down. The cargo is suspended inside the rigid shell with the helium balloons—and the cargo bay is bigger than any current commercial cargo aircraft. The different airship models can carry payloads ranging from 66 tons to 500 tons.

The Aeroscraft travels at 193 kilometers per hour (120 mph), but could save time, compared with planes, because cargo could be delivered directly to the final destination without having to be unloaded at the airport, then shifted to trucks and driven. “You might see 250-ton airships coming with cargo to a warehouse,” he says.

An airship can stay aloft forever because it doesn’t require energy to stay in the air, he adds. It’s propelled by an electric motor, with the electricity generated by fuel such as hydrogen, natural gas, or diesel. The hydrogen option is “basically like a fuel cell,” Mr. Pasternak says.

We can create transportation means with zero emissions.”

In a feasibility study, the Aeroscraft traveled 12,000 nautical miles (22,224 kilometers) in seven days. “We don’t need anything more than that,” Mr. Pasternak says. At its widest, the Pacific Ocean is 19,000 kilometers; Shanghai to Los Angeles is 10,428 kiliometers.

crew-prep-1Airship operation is similar to that of a ship, rather than a plane: it requires only two people to operate it, and even then the captain just needs to be available and not necessarily in the seat every minute. But a weeklong trip would require a bigger crew than two, so the crew quarters have bedrooms, similar to cabins on a ship.

An airship can ride out bad weather—its size means it is much less subject to turbulence than a plane—but afterward the structure would need to be inspected, Mr. Pasternak says. Alternatively, it can just go around storms rather than through them.

Cargo airships hold potential for defense applications, and Worldwide Aeros has received about $60 million in grants from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Mr. Pasternak says.

Airships also could be used to ferry humanitarian aid to areas hit by natural disasters, where transportation infrastructure has been destroyed.

But another application could be commercial, allowing for trade in goods in currently remote locations. “The major problem in development is you don’t have infrastructure,” Mr. Pasternak says. “An airship would allow a factory to go to Africa. You don’t need to build a railroad or a road” to transport the production to market.

The Internet revolutionized the quantity of information available anywhere, compared with libraries that were limited by the number of books they could hold, Mr. Pasternak says. Similarly, the airship will revolutionize distribution by giving anybody anywhere access to a transportation network, he says, adding, “It’s a new way of delivering.”


Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, now working as a freelance writer and editor with WSJ. Custom Studios in EMEA. For more from Catherine Bolgar, along with other industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of Aeroscraft a

Why Additive Manufacturing Works for the Aerospace Industry

By Catherine
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By Catherine Bolgar

The aerospace industry is leading innovation in additive manufacturing on several fronts, including applications, materials, processes and design.

Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, may be well-suited to the aerospace industry, as long as the technology is certified and the cost comes down. This industry needs to make complex parts in low volumes from high-performance materials, while constantly seeking new ways to lower costs. While AM can cost more than traditional machining methods, it provides savings on materials—which can be substantial when using expensive metals such as titanium.

“There has recently been a real tectonic shift in the way large aerospace companies are investing in additive manufacturing,” says Kamran Mumtaz, lecturer in additive manufacturing at the Centre for Advanced Additive Manufacturing at the University of Sheffield, U.K.

Here are some areas of innovation:


AM originally was used to make plastic models and prototypes for basic form and fitting applications, but not for functional testing. Then AM was used to make plastic parts for functional applications. “More recently, it has been used for brackets, ventilation ducts and parts to hold wires and cables in place,” says Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, a Fort Collins, Colorado, AM consulting firm. “Now, more parts are being made of metal AM, and I have seen no fewer than 25 new and innovative designs from one major aerospace company, alone,” he says.

Aircraft Turbine“With traditional manufacturing, many parts must be assembled from smaller pieces, because of the limits on what shapes can be cast, milled or molded,” Mr. Wohlers explains. “The technique of building in layers allows for parts to be combined digitally that could include 20, 50 or 100 parts into one, two or three parts,” he says. Fewer parts means big savings in expensive manufacturing processes, assembly, labor, inventory and maintenance, he says, adding that companies also are seeing a reduction in certification paperwork, because each part must conform to the strict requirements of regulatory agencies.


Polymers, or plastics, are the most mature technology, but titanium 6-4, which can be difficult to grind or weld, is the most popular because of how well it works in AM, along with aluminum, nickel, stainless steel, and cobalt chrome.

New materials would require going through a qualification process, which takes several years. However, researchers are looking at feed stocks, optimal particle sizes and recyclability of leftover powder, says Bill Peter, director of the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The laboratory recently made the largest 3D-printed component, which wasn’t a plane part but a trim tool to make the extended wing section of the new Boeing 777X. Traditionally made of metal, the AM tool was made of a composite of polymers with chopped carbon fiber. The AM tool is faster and cheaper to make than a metal one, Dr. Peter says.

Work is being done on AM composites that can withstand high pressures and temperatures as high as 176°C (350°F). “It would have tremendous savings for tooling in the composite industry for air applications,” he says. “Eventually, we want to understand how to bring the best materials to a problem set and come up with hybrid solutions,” using metals, polymers and ceramics.

AM makes it possible to alter microstructures as the materials are processed, which can affect their strength and flexibility. For example, one AM company “can blend two or more polymers and, consequently, can make one location of a part rigid and gradually transition to soft and elastic in another location,” Mr. Wohlers says.


jet engineThe most common AM method for making metal parts is to lay a bed of powder and to melt it, layer by layer, with a laser or an electron beam, following a programmed design. However, the AM machines remain limited in size, so most of the parts made are small and in limited volumes.

“At Sheffield, we’re developing new manufacturing processes that improve on efficiency, build speed and enhance the properties of the components,” Dr. Mumtaz says. “We have a metallic-powder-bed manufacturing process, called diode-area melting, or DAM, that has the potential to be 10 times faster than conventional selective laser melting.”

Selective laser melting uses a single laser. Increasing speed requires a more powerful laser or integration of multiple lasers. “DAM replaces a single-point laser with up to 20 laser diodes. You can scan an entire powder bed faster,” he says.

The University of Sheffield also is building a 3D printer that uses high-speed sintering of polymers, with an infrared lamp on an inkjet printer, that’s about 100 times faster than laser sintering.


Topology optimization is the mathematical technique employed to find the best way to “use minimal materials and minimal weight, but fulfill the needs of the part,” Mr. Wohlers says.

When grinding a part, 80% to 90% can be scrap. Additive Manufacturing is the opposite of that: you can do a highly convoluted, complex shape that can reduce materials and weight by 40% to 50% sometimes.”


AM machines are equipped with cameras and sensors to track the fabrication, point by point, including in the middle of a part as it’s being formed. “We’re capturing the information and using data analytics to see what’s going on,” Dr. Peter says.

Eventually, manufacturers would like to incorporate sensors into the parts, to monitor them for temperature, humidity, vibration or other data. However, sensors and metal or polymers are “dissimilar materials—and that makes things complicated,” Dr. Peter says. “While research activities are stepping up in the area of embedded sensors, there is a need for continued research to commercialize.”


Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, now working as a freelance writer and editor with WSJ. Custom Studios in EMEA. For more from Catherine Bolgar, along with other industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is building a huge rocket factory in Florida

By Alyssa
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Byline: Tim Fernholz

Blue Origin_feature

Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, said it broke ground on a 750,000-square-foot “orbital vehicle” factory in Florida, to build full-scale rockets that could reach the International Space Station or the altitudes where satellites orbit.

“We’re clearing the way for the production of a reusable fleet of orbital vehicles that we will launch and land, again and again,” Bezos confirmed via email.

Blue Origin’s current rocket, the New Shepard, became the first vertical take-off vehicle to fly to space, land on Earth, and fly to space again earlier this year. However, the vehicle lacks the capability to earn money doing anything but giving people a good view.

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Now the company is aiming to build more useful rockets to compete with companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA), the joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin that launches most US government satellites.

Previously, Blue Origin announced it would build a new engine for ULA to help pave the way for its own orbital rockets. (And a ULA executive got in hot water earlier this year after praising Blue Origin’s efforts on the engine over that of another company working on the project, saying that ULA is “doing all this work for both of them, and the chances of Aerojet Rocketdyne coming in and beating the billionaire is pretty low. We’re putting a whole lot more energy into BE-4, Blue Origin.”)

That engine will be initially manufactured at Blue Origin’s main facility in Washington state before moving to an as-yet identified full-scale manufacturing facility, but it will be installed in the rockets built in Florida.

Blue Origin_inline 2

The new Blue Origin factory will share many of the technical features pioneered at SpaceX’s California rocket factory, including large-scale friction stir welding to join together the body of the rocket, and “automated composite processing equipment,” or the 3D-printed carbon fiber to make things like the faring or nose cone of the rocket that protects a satellite during launch.

Slated to open its doors in December 2017, the factory would mark Blue Origin’s ability to compete directly with ULA and SpaceX in the rocket business, instead of simply being a partner or a critic of the larger enterprises.

Around that time, however, Boeing and SpaceX will be gearing up to be the first private companies to fly humans into orbit.



To discuss this and other topics about the future of technology, finance, life sciences and more, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

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