If Sergey Brin has anything to do with it, the future of humanitarian aid could come in the form of giant airships roaming the skies.
Brin, the Google cofounder worth over $99 billion, has been working on a secretive airship company for over four years. Known as LTA Research and Exploration — "LTA" being short for "lighter than air" — the company got its start inside NASA's Ames Research Center in 2017. Over the past four years, LTA Research has worked to bring its vision of zero-emission aircrafts to life.
Here's where Brin's interest in airships began and everything we know so far about his venture.
Brin has long had an affinity for all types of aircraft
Back in 2005, Brin and his Google cofounder, Larry Page, made an unusual purchase: a Boeing 767-200, a wide-body jet capable of carrying 180 passengers. The pair refurbished the plane to accommodate 50 passengers and serve as their executive jet, a far cry from the standard, and significantly smaller, Gulfstream jet typically favored by executives.
According to court documents that were later published by The Wall Street Journal, Page and Brin ended up arguing over what type of beds to put in the so-called "party plane," and they also wanted to install features like hammocks and a cocktail lounge.
Brin's interest in aircraft extended beyond a company jet: In 2012, during the launch of Google Glass, Brin had a team of skydivers leap from a Zeppelin hovering over San Francisco. The skydivers captured footage on the headset and Brin aired it live onstage.
Brin also oversaw the development of various types of aircraft during his time at X, Google's moonshot lab. Projects under the X umbrella included Loon, a way to deliver internet connectivity via balloons; Makani, which planned to provide electricity using kites; and Wing, a drone delivery project. Loon and Makani have since been shut down.
Brin started working on LTA while he was still president of Alphabet, Google's parent company
According to a 2017 Bloomberg story by Ashlee Vance, Brin decided to build his own airship in 2014 after visiting the Ames Research Center, which is located near Google's Mountain View, California, headquarters.
Ames was previously home to the USS Macon, a massive airship built by the US Navy in the 1930s — it was that airship that inspired Brin's project, according to Bloomberg. The USS Macon, called "Queen of the Skies," later crashed into the Pacific Ocean 45 miles off the coast of San Francisco, essentially ending the Navy's airship program.
In 2017, Insider revealed that LTA had paid $131,000 to lease hangar space from Alphabet. The hangar was located at Moffett Field, a NASA airfield adjacent to Ames that's currently operated by Google.
In December 2019, Brin and Page stepped away from their duties at Alphabet.
LTA plans to build a massive, expensive airship
According to a 2017 report from The Guardian's Mark Harris, the airship is expected to be nearly 200 meters long, equivalent to about 656 feet or nearly two football fields in length.
By comparison, the infamous Hindenburg Zeppelin was 245 meters long, which is longer than three Boeing 747s.
Sources told The Guardian that at the time, LTA was being funded by Brin himself, to the tune of over $100 million. It's not clear, four years later, how much Brin has spent on the airships.
The airship will be used for humanitarian missions
The aircraft will be used to used to bring humanitarian aid, including food and supplies, to remote areas of the world — because airships wouldn't require a traditional airport runway to land, the blimp could theoretically reach regions that are otherwise inaccessible.
"With these next-generation airships, we strive to improve humanitarian aid delivery and reduce carbon emissions, while providing economic opportunity and new jobs to Americans," LTA's website reads.
According to The Guardian, Brin also wanted the blimp to be luxuriously appointed so it could serve as an "intercontinental air yacht" for his friends and family.
LTA's airship will also be more climate-friendly than an airplane
According to SFGate's Madeline Wells, airships are faster than cargo ships and produce 80% to 90% fewer emissions than traditional aircraft.
LTA says on its website that its goal is to eventually build "a family of aircraft with zero emissions."
Airships like the Goodyear blimp have been filled with helium since the Hindenburg disaster — the Hindenburg relied on hydrogen to lift it off the ground, but hydrogen is extremely flammable.
But LTA appears to be revisiting the use of hydrogen with its aircraft. A recent LTA job listing spotted by TechCrunch stated that the company was looking for a hydrogen program manager — according to TechCrunch, the company wants to develop its own massive hydrogen fuel cell, which would weigh less than a lithium-ion battery and be powerful enough that the airship could cross oceans.
LTA would still rely on helium in order to lift the aircraft off the ground, TechCrunch reports.
An LTA airship could take to the skies in 2021
TechCrunch reports that LTA has already built a prototype aircraft called Pathfinder 1. The airship will still be powered by lithium-ion batteries, have 12 electric motors, and be capable of transporting 14 passengers.
It may be ready to fly as soon as this year, according to TechCrunch.
LTA has also been contributing the nation's COVID-19 response
The company says on its website that it used the laser cutters and 3D printers at its facilities in Mountain View and Akron, Ohio, to produce roughly 150 components for face shields per day, contributing over 250,000 free face shields to hospitals, medical practices, and emergency workers nationwide in the early months of the pandemic.
LTA later partnered with NGOs around the world, ultimately providing over 5 million face shields globally, the company says.