UPDATE: entirely coincidentally, LM just signed a contract to build several production versions of these things for Canadian company Aviation Capital:
Alberta-based private company Aviation Capital Enterprises says it has inked a deal with US aerospace colossus Lockheed, builder of the P-791, to “design, develop, build, flight test and Federal Aviation Administration certify a family of hybrid aircraft”. The first ship, dubbed “SkyTug” and able to lift 20 tons, is to be delivered in 2012. Further versions are to scale up to “several hundred tons”, apparently.
While in other articles they reference humanitarian and disaster-relief applications, the focus appears to be on unspecified commercial applications.
Ahh, it seems like just yesterday when this idea was just a glimmer in some Skunk Works’ engineer’s eye, and now it’s all growed up…
Back in 1998 when some of my coworkers at Michoud were loaned out to work on this, it seemed like a clever but uneconomical idea — I mean, how much use would there be for an airship that could carry a dozen cargo containers anywhere in the world and land in places with no infrastructure beyond a parking lot or football/soccer field?
Clearly, events in the intervening decade have answered that question. Imagine how useful a fleet of full-sized airships like this could have been after Katrina, the Boxing Day Tsunami, the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and other natural disasters in remote areas or areas where the usual infrastructure (roads, airports) is temporarily inoperable.
It’s worth noting that there was a competitor of sorts for Aerocraft back in the day: CargoLifter. They didn’t have the same land-anywhere features, but the various CargoLifter vehicles were intended to carry large and bulky items too difficult or disruptive to transport by land.