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Sergey Brin building humanitarian blimp for lifesaving leisure

You may have to wait a decade or more to join him aloft

By Thomas Claburn, 27 May 2017

In a few years, Alphabet president and Google cofounder Sergey Brin is expected to have an airship at his disposal for humanitarian missions and ferrying friends, not necessarily in that order.

The tech billionaire's blimp, according to The Guardian, is currently under construction at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) Moffett Field in Santa Clara County, California. The space agency leased a hangar to Alphabet subsidiary Planetary Ventures in 2014 for $1.6bn over the course of 60 years.

The helium-fed balloon behemoth will reportedly be almost 200 metres long and is expected to cost $100m to $150m. It is said to have been conceived for use with hydrogen, but evidently someone recalled the fiery fate of the Hindenburg.

Moffett Field, just down the road from Google's Mountain View, California, headquarters, previously served a now-defunct commercial zeppelin business, Airship Ventures, which operated sightseeing flights from the facility between 2008 and 2012.

Lack of sponsorships and a tenfold increase in the price of helium contributed to the firm's demise, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The failed company's 75-metre airship, Eureka, has since been disassembled and shipped back to its maker, Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH, in Germany.

Igor Pasternak, CEO of airship company Aeros, expressed optimism about the commercial potential of airships in a phone interview with The Register.

Past airship efforts, he suggested, focused too much on niche markets. He described airships as a way to make cargo distribution direct, rather than flowing through an inefficient chain of ports and distribution points. He likened the decentralization airships can bring to the way the internet reshaped information distribution.

But it may be a while before airships fill the skies. It will take more than five years, he said. "It took a long time to get from America Online to Gmail," he pointed out.

Tech billionaires have shown an affinity for airy ventures. Larry Page, Alphabet's CEO and Google's other founder, owns two flying car companies, Kitty Hawk and Zee.Aero. The two startups are competing to design personal aircraft more appealing than ultralights and more affordable than private planes.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Tesla's Elon Musk have focused their attention on rocketry, though Musk (who also has an affinity for tunneling) has expressed interest in electric planes.

The general public too can look forward to personal air transport, which will probably look more like Uber's Elevate project than Brin's floating folly. But don't expect much for a decade or more, according to a paper published earlier this month by researchers at Duke University and NASA.

There may be some outliers – like AeroMobil, which has begun taking pre-orders to deliver a commercially available flying car in 2017. But with a price tag of at least $1.2m, the AeroMobil flying car isn't reaching beyond the traditional private jet market.

According to the paper's co-authors – Victoria Chibuogu Nneji, Alexander Stimpson, and Mary (Missy) Cummings from Duke, and Kenneth H Goodrich, from NASA Langley Research Center – the technology necessary for on-demand passenger air travel and the requisite regulatory framework won't be ready for a decade or more.

As the paper recounts, prior efforts to democratize air travel have struggled with issues of cost and safety. Faced with low public interest and accidents, New York Airways, which offered helicopter transit in New York City from 1949 to 1979, couldn't make enough money to sustain operations.

Then there's the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS), a $69m initiative between 2001 and 2005, conceived as a joint partnership between NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration to create a market for low-cost regional aviation using jets like taxis.

Its impact was blunted by a decline in the number of private pilots, the limited number and locations of airports that handle general aviation, the challenge of air traffic management, and the high cost of aircraft, the paper explains.

Reality check

The rise of drones, technological advances in a variety of fields, and the emergence of on-demand business models – in conjunction with alternative aircraft ownership schemes – have revived hope that personal air transport can work for the salaried class.

But drone companies, the paper notes, are failing, raising concerns about market viability and the projected timelines for the era of on-demand personal aviation. As with self-driving cars, the projected arrival of passenger aircraft capable of electrically powered vertical take-off and landing – what Uber refers to as eVTOL – raises a host of issues that haven't been solved.

Despite the excitement, much of the research and development work remains undone, the paper says, like certifying the safety of probabilistic reasoning algorithms, electric propulsion systems, communication systems and fleet coordination systems.

In a phone interview with The Register, Cummings, associate professor at Duke University and director of Duke's Humans and Autonomy Laboratory, said that the missing pieces – a regulatory framework and the technology necessary to support on-demand air transit – are intertwined.

"For Uber's Elevate vision to happen, you have to have a battery-powered VTOL aircraft," she said. "We don't have the batteries today that can do that job, nor do we have a VTOL system that has ever been certified for passenger carrying."

And without the technology to test, regulators can't formulate meaningful rules.

Cummings expressed confidence that the technical challenges will be solved, but hedged on the ten-year timeline suggested in the paper. "Ten years is academic code for ten, twenty, or thirty years," she said.

Then there's the question of how to design vehicles expected to be largely autonomous. Do you want your self-driving air taxi to have a manual override steering wheel or maybe full flight instrumentation for trained pilots? And when you board your six-year-old and tell Siri to take the child to soccer camp, do you tell her not to touch the red button? Or do you disable it and bet her life on bug-free code?

Cummings suggested that concern about human error, not to mention human malice, will produce designs that deny passengers access to flight controls. And that means we need flawless, tested, predictable AI.

"The core issue, whether it's self-driving cars or autonomous planes, is that we have no idea how to guarantee that probabilistic reasoning algorithms can make acceptable choices in the most safety-critical situations," said Cummings. "Can the plane always guess right if it loses an engine over a congested environment, and not injure anyone?"

When we test airplane engines today, we put them on a block and they can be expected to perform the same way, said Cummings. But driverless cars today perform differently in the same environment. As an example, she said, long shadows might alter how car's cameras perceive the world.

"With AI-driven planes or cars, it's still pretty much the Wild West in terms of how we certify these systems," said Cummings. ®

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