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Flying into the future: Riding a blimp to work

Instead of driving a car or riding the subway, future commuters may have the ability to fly to work.

A team of five Ohio State aerospace engineering students spent the past four months designing an aircraft for people commuting to cities as part of NASA’s inaugural University Student Design Challenge, and the quintet of Buckeyes recently won second place.

The Ohio State team poses with a model part of their designed airship. Credit: Kam King, College of Engineering

The contest tasked 13 teams of university students from across the country with creating an aircraft meant to travel within city limits so as to reduce traffic congestion and fuel emissions, while providing the general population with a reliable form of transportation.

Such an airship could provide a solution to traffic problems, which are expected to worsen in the future as urban populations grow, said Brennan Barrington, a fifth-year in aerospace engineering and OSU’s team leader.

The first- and second-place teams, California State Polytechnic University and OSU respectively, will travel to NASA’s Glenn Research Center for an award ceremony in June.

“We came up with a concept that would work,” said Barrington. “In certain (situations), it would actually make sense to build this (airship) and set up a system based on it.”

The OSU team’s lighter-than-air design, which they named the Local Transit Airship, contains features similar to two methods of transportation.

“It’s a blimp,” said Ken Gordon, the faculty advisor of the project. “And you’ve got your gondola underneath, which is basically like a subway car, and the people go in and out of that.”

Like a subway car, commuters enter the aircraft through large sliding doors — a process that takes only a few minutes — before being lifted into the air and transported to their destination.

The “lighter-than-air” vehicle is designed much like a blimp, with a seating compartment designed like a subway car attached underneath. Credit: Colin Trussa

Propelled by electric motors, the aircraft is designed to carry 192 passengers into or out of a city such as Honolulu in 10 minutes, significantly shortening commute time, said Colin Trussa, one of the team members and a fifth-year in aerospace engineering.

For example, with five or six airships operating in Honolulu — an area that experiences extreme rush hours — the number of cars on the road would decrease by 25 percent during rush hour, said Barrington. He said this is significant not only because of the potential to eliminate traffic congestion, but also to reduce pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency attributed 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions to transportation in 2015, according to the most recent data available. By using an emission-free aircraft, such as the one designed by the OSU team, these greenhouse gas emissions could decrease, both by limiting the number of cars on the road and by decreasing the frequency of traffic jams.

Furthermore, in a city like Honolulu, residents spend an extra 48 hours in their car every year waiting in traffic jams, Barrington said. This trend is expected to increase in the future with the expected rise in urban populations, despite the development of self-driving cars. Air travel is one method of reducing such congestion.

At the same time, like blimps, the vehicle would operate quietly, preventing the loud disruptions that typical airplanes can cause.

While the idea might sound futuristic, it is actually quite innovative and feasible, said Gordon.

“None of this is really revolutionary technology,” Barrington said. “We aren’t counting on anything that doesn’t already exist, it’s just that we’re putting all this together in a new way, and to me that’s what’s cool.”

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