Future Hybrid Plane Could Bring Disaster Aid

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After typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless and about 2,500 people dead, the world turned its attention to a growing humanitarian crisis. Losing thousands of homes was bad enough, but the damage to the local airport in Tacloban, one of the country’s hardest-hit cities, hampered relief efforts. While the airport re-opened in just three days, jet planes still couldn’t (and can’t) land there and deliver much-needed food and water.

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In the future, supplies could get to stricken regions sooner with aircraft such as this one: a hybrid of a rigid airship, a helicopter and an airplane, built to land in places where runways might be non-existent or destroyed. It’s part of the European Commission’s Extremely Short Take Off and Landing On any Surface (ESTOLAS) project, which is currently undergoing feasibility studies.

One look at the plane and its donut-shaped bulge in the middle and you know this craft is different. The central bulge can be filled with helium to make the vehicle lighter, which saves on fuel, or the space can double as cargo area. A propeller on the craft’s belly makes vertical take off and landing possible and when surrounded by a skirt can convert the plane into a hovercraft. Overall, the plane will also be shaped like a wing to give it more lift.

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The idea of using some alternative to both planes and helicopters isn’t new. A California company, Aeros, is working on a rigid airship design called Aeroscraft that it says could help out in disaster zones. The Aeroscraft made its first test flights this year. But that’s a different concept from ESTOLAS, which is a heavier-than-air vehicle.

The project is a joint effort of researchers at Riga Technical University in Latvia and Cranfield University in the U.K. Alexander Gamaleyev, who heads up the Latvian side of the research project, told New Scientist that they are currently testing models in wind tunnels, and will move to radio-controlled prototypes later. One issue is the drag that the helium-filled section of the plane would generate. Hybrid aircraft like this have been tested before, but the older designs ran into stability problems. The engineers working on ESTOLAS think that modern computers can deal with that.

via New Scientist

Credit: ESTOLAS