Friday, September 01, 2017

Seattle brothers plan to revive industry with plane, blimp hybrid

Brothers Joel (left) and James Egan stand with their creation, the PLIMP.

It's a PLIMP, they tell me. And yes, it's spelled in all caps because they trademarked it.

James and Joel Egan, 46-year-old identical twins, say they have invented a new kind of aircraft and they are confident it will be a hit as a drone and, later, in larger form, as a passenger craft.

The brothers had envisioned the hybrid plane-blimp since they were kids, but had to wait for technology to make it practical.

"We're thrilled that we've been able to build one of these," says James Egan, who is also a somewhat prominent attorney in Seattle.

Under the name Egan Airships, they plan to present the craft at an upcoming drone convention and expect to draw no shortage of interest for a craft that will change the industry, they say.

But what is it?

The PLIMP is, essentially, an airplane body attached to a blimp that is filled with helium. It is powered by two housed propellers, one on either side, that can rotate for travel in any direction.

And it's big. At roughly 28 feet long and more than seven feet wide, the craft is far larger than most drones. Weighing in at under 55 pounds, it is qualified for use as a commercial drone under FAA rules.

Its size is one of two key ways the Egans say the PLIMP is ahead of the curve.

Drone rules require a line of sight to the craft to operate it, an issue that has at least slowed Amazon's plans to unleash a fleet of delivery drones across the U.S. Most drones are relatively small and so can't be seen from far off.

But the PLIMP is not small at all. It's large and the Egans are confident it will be visible for up to 10 miles in the right conditions.

"What we can do is we can survey a 10-mile circle," Joel Egan says. "So it is going to the moon."

With a top speed around 40 mph in the current design, the Egans envision the craft having a variety of uses made even better by its longer range.

The other advantage the brothers see in the PLIMP is that it won't fall from the sky.

Its helium balloon is filled with enough of the gas to provide about 50 percent of its lift or buoyancy. The electric-powered propellers provide the rest and all the forward momentum.

But should the craft lose power, it won't simply drop like a rock, James Egan says. Instead it will fall at a rate of about 9.5 mph. Joel Egan calls it "plummet-proof."

The brother had the help of others designing their lifelong dream aircraft, and hope to draw some investment in the near future, but they don't plan to simply sell the PLIMP.

Instead, they plan to offer service contracts to "pretty much anyone who comes along and wants to pay," James says.

Egan Airships would provide the craft and a pilot to operate it.

The Egans weren't ready to speculate on how large a fleet they might wind up with, but they were also confident the idea would really take off.

Beyond its use as a drone, a scaled-up version of the PLIMP would be a safe mode of travel for people as well, James and Joel say. It's a modern-day twist on the airships of yesteryear.

"There's a dormant airship industry that we are going to rekindle," Joel says. "I think this is something we can do."

A PLIMP large enough for just two passengers, however, would need to be about 90 feet long.

Still, Joel says the craft is revolutionary, pointing to the invention of the helicopter in 1936.

"That was 81 years ago," Joel says. "We have a new form of aircraft. We're the next form of aircraft after the helicopter."

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