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INNOVATE | The Age of the Airship

A SHADOW FALLS FROM ABOVE, and you glance up to see what looks like a giant marshmallow lifting off of the roof of a skyscraper, loaded with solar panels bound for Omaha. This is the future that "helium heads" envision: lumbering but graceful airships taking some of the load off trucks, trains, freighters, and even jets while expending little or no fuel. Inflatable craft can drop to precise locations or need only a short runway—useful for urban factories, earthquake relief, or the battlefield.

Click to see larger image.

Infographic: Brian Kaas

When Mark Summers released his 15-foot-long homemade blimp into the Utah sky one Sunday morning in 2009, it seemed nothing could go wrong. There was no wind, and he'd set a flight ceiling of only 100 feet. Going higher would run afoul of both the Federal Aviation Administration and the citizens of Provo, who had been known to call in reports of a UFO when a blimp pilot got too ambitious with his remote control.

The craft was the first prototype for Summers, a network engineer and an inventor who holds three patents. He's also the founder of Helios Airships, a company that proposes to float cargo around the world on airships powered by nothing but the sun.

The vehicle would rise to an astonishing 36,000 feet, where it would latch onto the jet stream for an express ride around the world--three days from New York to Shanghai or from Shanghai to Los Angeles. Its giant roof of solar panels would be 30 percent more efficient at temperatures below -50 degrees Fahrenheit than at ground temperatures.

Summers, 31, discovered as a child that he could use the air currents in his house to send his siblings messages by balloon. When his mom gave him a birthday tank of helium, the drift of his life was established.

"The fascination with aircraft is always about freedom," said Summers. "When I experiment with blimps, it's freedom from the confines of Earth, freedom from gravity, and now freedom from the expense of fuels."

He'll need that vision to overcome some earthly bumps: On its test ride, Summers's proto-airship was a little lazy on the turns and he piloted the craft onto some power lines and the roof of a building. He's now at work on another model that, while smaller, can be loaded onto a car and floated far from the rubberneckers of Provo. —David Ferris



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