New Tech, Old Tech: The Robotic Return of the Blimp

Jay Stillman

8 min read

We are always watching for the latest trends in personal injury lawsuits. In this post, we’ll look at what you need to know about the latest in consumer goods and materials shipping. Warehousing and delivery systems are predicted to go airborne, while in major cities delivery robots are already scuttling along the sidewalks.

First, we will overview the technology and then look at the impact on consumers from a personal injury standpoint.

As shoppers increasingly opt to buy online, three major issues present themselves to sellers:

Warehousing — companies are seeking to create decentralized intermediary points where merchandise from various manufacturers can be stored before being delivered to customers
Delivery — eliminating the need for postal or truck deliveries to individual customers
In-city delivery — increasing efficiency in areas where vehicle deliveries are difficult and costly

Just as online shopping reduces the demand for brick-and-mortar stores, companies such as Amazon are looking to eliminate brick-and-mortar warehousing.

One re-developing technology is the airship — a kind of blimp that can be tethered and used as an airborne warehouse. It is a new use of an old technology.

Airships, blimps, dirigibles and zeppelins were considered revolutionary when they were first developed. Initially used in 1900, predating airplanes, airships were a quieter and more elegant means of luxury travel, capable of carrying 70 passengers on a transatlantic flight. Flying at a speed of about 80 miles per hour, airships crossed the Atlantic in about 4-5 days. At the time, this was faster than standard sea travel and presumably allowed one to avoid seasickness.

Airships were also used for bombing during World War I and for military purposes during World War II. When the U.S. banned the export of helium in the run-up to the second World War, the Germans switched to hydrogen use only. The use of highly-inflammable hydrogen instead of more stable helium lead to the spectacular burn and crash of the German passenger zeppelin, the Hindenburg, in 1937. The disastrous crash was the death knell of passenger airships. The Goodyear blimp persisted as an advertising novelty and a number of other blimps are still used for advertising and aerial photography, but the Hindenburg disaster and improved airplane transport were the nails in the coffin of airship travel.

Applied as airborne storage, not transportation, the new airship technology will be designed to carry as much as 60 tons aloft —- the current capacity is 44 tons. This floating warehouse would be highly automated so that flying drones could retrieve orders from the “mothership” and deliver them directly to customers. By the same token, large drones would be used to restock the airship.

Amazon airship: Amazon patents unmanned airship to launch its delivery drones - TomoNews

Elimination of traditional warehouse and personnel means a massive scale back of real estate, maintenance and personnel costs needed to run a storage and delivery operations. No need to maintain a large warehouse or even turn on lighting thanks to robotics. Maximally automating the process reduces operating costs, while streamlining the delivery process for faster service. Work staff would also be scaled back to minimum manpower needs for airship maintenance and supply checks. Cutting out delivery providers such as the post office and other services reduces costs for both the company and the customer. Especially in the case of the mail service, inefficiency and delays are often a result of the multi-layered movement of items through the system. Each transfer to a different stage of the operation has the potential for problems. Warehouse-to-customer delivery simplifies and speeds the supply process.

With this large-capacity, multi-ton technology, a moving, untethered blimp could also be used to transport materials such as lumber from harder-to-reach locations. In terms of speed, the blimp may be faster and more direct than rail or ground transport, because there is no need to move the goods on and off a road or rail line. In many cases, oversize loads present a danger on the roads, the inconvenience of roads being closed during special transports, and the expense of night and weekend pay for transportation workers. Blimp technology would eliminate all of these issues.

However, the dangers of megaton shipments floating over population centers have not been fully examined. In the event of a crash, the scale of damage could be on a par with a major natural disaster. In this case, we are talking about low-frequency and massive damage rates if things go wrong, so the likelihood is that large-load blimp transport would be restricted from flying over large population centers.

Personal injury will be more likely due to drone traffic. Whether it is an issue of injury due to dropped payloads or malfunctioning drones that crash, accidents due to distraction, or aviation mishaps due to drones and aircraft crossing paths, the increasing frequency of drone traffic will have consequences. Damage to property and power lines are other issues which will negatively impact the population.

Regulation of drones is increasingly urgent as irresponsible drone operators fly their craft near airports and helipads against FAA guidelines. Even if retailers are more responsible than amateur drone operators, programming will have to be very tight to eliminate intrusions into air transportation space.

Another issue is the need for drone coordination as traffic and safety agencies use drones for surveillance and security purposes. With supply and other applications vying for airspace, there will have to be some kind of unified monitoring system to reduce or eliminate crashes. Without a universal grid, each drone will be only as safe as its own onboard crash prevention software. So many questions remain as informal and formal drone use is increasing yearly, but is nowhere near the potential use for this technology.

To give you an overview of current and projected drone use, 8% of Americans are now drone owners, with the projected number of drones in the U.S. by 2020 estimated at 7 million. As evidence of the dramatic spike in sales and use, drone purchases in 2015 were 700,000, and estimates of 2017 sales are about 3 million, a major jump in only two years. Only 20,000 are registered for commercial use, mostly for photography and real estate purposes. Over 770,000 are FAA-registered. The gap between sales figures and registration may be a cause for concern, depending on the flight potential and whether these are merely backyard toys or long-range drones. Near misses with commercial aircraft in 2015 numbered 300 overall with over one-third involving passenger aircraft. As anyone can see, these issues are already pressing and increased use will mean increased numbers of incidents and potential accidents.

Delivery robots now legal to roam in Arizona

On city sidewalks, “land drones” are already here; small robots are scooting through the streets and sharing pedestrian space. Companies are now trying out new technology to bypass regular delivery systems with robotic delivery. Your lunch or a hot pizza could be zipping along the sidewalk inside a wheeled box that is programmed to arrive at your home and office.

At least seven states already have delivery robot regulations in place as of the end of last month. The regulations mandate limits to the size and speed of delivery robots. According to recode, an online tech magazine, in two cases state law was written with the aid of a robot start-up, and effectively served to eliminate competition. Starship, which manufactures lighter-weight roving robots, advised two states to use the lighter 50-lb weight of their product as a top limit, thereby cutting out the competition which manufactures 70- and 80-lb products. While weight is one component of the danger potentially caused by these robots, it is not the only issue. Proper programming and scanning sensor quality are also factors which prevent accidents. We have already looked at self-driving cars from multiple angles and the recent fatality involving an autonomous vehicle was definitely a sensor processing issue. Whether the car was lighter or heavier ultimately made little difference to the pedestrian who was undetected and run over.

The potential for mishaps, with robots suddenly sharing pedestrian space is a trade-off for convenience. In cities like New York, delivery cyclists have a reputation for being an aggressive and reckless threat to pedestrians. It is possible that roving robots will be better fellow pedestrians and your pizza will arrive hot. Nonetheless, accidents will happen. Like fender-benders, the collision of humans and robots could have minor results, but in the frail and seniors, the impact could be major. Being knocked to the sidewalk could be something you readily scramble up from, with shaken nerves and a scrape or two, while for seniors, it could be a hip fracture or worse. There is also the potential of getting run over if you are knocked into the street.

Who will be liable for drone or robotics accidents? Will you sue the manufacturer or the user? Our guess is that product liability will be the initial focus of lawsuits. As products come into wider use, it is possible that companies using drones will sued for using less safe models or inappropriate use. In addition to smart traffic coordination, weather conditions will be a factor. Flying drones in windy weather or running robots on icy sidewalks can present dangers to the public and result in personal injury. Companies will have to weigh risks and benefits when running these technologies.

The future of goods warehousing and supply delivery are looking more and more futuristic and many of the possible challenges are still without solutions. How industry chooses to anticipate negative consequences will determine the extent of negative impact and personal injury experience by the public. There is no question that worst-case scenario for the public will be failure to strategize and choosing merely to react as issues emerge. Corporations must carefully consider all impacts of manufactured products and their usage before the technology is implemented.

While the dramatic vista of a gigantic tethered blimp may be impressive, the cumulative impact of whizzing drones and scurrying robots will probably have a greater impact on our lives. We hope that the greater efficiency will pay off in the balance between risk and reward for all Americans.

In the case of personal injuries due to these new technologies, Stillman & Friedland will be here for you offering our expertise and, as always, seeking to get you fair compensation for damage and injuries suffered in this brave new world.

Because we care…