UK company Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) expects the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to test its HAV 304 hybrid airship as a potential airborne surveillance platform from May 2015, following the completion of in-country flight trials that are set to begin at the end of this year, a company official told IHS Jane's on 28 February.
Speaking at the first public unveiling of the HAV 304 since it was returned to the company by the US Department of Defense (DoD) in 2013, HAV Technical Manager Andy Barton said that the company has been continuing discussions with the MoD with regard to utilising the hybrid airship as a wide-area surveillance (WAS) platform for counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, and that it anticipates MoD-sponsored testing to take place once the initial UK flight trials have been completed in April 2015.
"With [Civil Aviation Authority] CAA flight trials set to take place from the end of  through to April 2015, the logical next step would be for the MoD to then trial surveillance kit [on the HAV 304]. We are taking the vehicle back to North America [to demonstrate to the commercial sector] in October , so ideally it would need to be before then," he said.
HAV has already flown the HAV 304 once before, on 7 August 2012, as part of the US DoD's Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) programme for the US Army. Budget constraints forced the DoD to cancel LEMV in February 2013, and the UK company brought back its aircraft for USD301,000 (just 0.1% of the USD300 million which the DoD had already invested in development). With the UK government having awarded HAV a GBP2.5 million (USD4.2 million) technology grant (which the company has matched), the HAV 304 has been reassembled in one of the two giant airship hangars in Cardington, Bedforshire, with a view to offering it and subsequent models to the commercial and military sectors.
While the commercial market is focused chiefly on hauling cargo (the HAV 304 has a 20 tonne payload capacity, with the follow-on Airlander 50 able to carry 50 tonnes [though this will be able to be increased by trading fuel for payload], and an even larger Airlander 200 planned for the future), Barton said that militaries in general, and the UK military in particular, already have their strategic airlift capabilities adequately catered for. It is for this reason largely that HAV sees alternative military uses for its range of hybrid airships.
As well as the WAS anti-piracy role, HAV CEO Stephen McGlennan added the Royal Navy's Crowsnest airborne early warning requirement for the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers as a possible future mission for the company's hybrid airships, as well as carrier on-board delivery (COD).
For Crowsnest, company director Sam Macleod said that one or more platforms could provide an airborne early warning capability for the carriers and their accompanying ships. He added that HAV has looked at the possibility of using a hybrid airship as a mother-vessel for a swarm of unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the Insitu ScanEagle which has recently entered service with the UK Royal Navy. "The US Navy used to launch and recover manned aircraft from airships, so it is absolutely possible. We have looked at ScanEagle launch to expand [the HAV 304/Airlander 50] horizons. It is very much an option," he said.
In the COD role, McGlennan noted that the HAV 304/Airlander 50 would be able to load and offload engines for the carrier's Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter aircraft; a task which would otherwise have to wait until the ship docked back at port.
While McGlennan declined to be drawn on specific conversations with the UK MoD, he noted that there has been "tremendous interest" in the concepts described. In addition to the UK, McGlennan said that militaries in the Gulf and Asia have also shown interest, as well as NATO, and Canada (where the government has a need to patrol its Arctic north). While the DoD cancelled its LEMV programme, the US Army is still said to be in regular dialogue with HAV and will be following the flight trials closely.
Speaking at the same unveiling event, HAV shareholder and Iron Maiden lead singer, Bruce Dickinson, said that there are a number of key factors that first have to be mastered if such vehicles are to be operated successfully, namely; flight controls, structures, engines, ground handling, and weather forecasting. "All of these we believe we [at HAV] have solved," he said. As to the future success of HAV's line of hybrid airships, Dickinson was in little doubt, saying; "Only if you are prejudiced and narrow in your outlook does this not make sense."