We are quite happy to hurtle ourselves hundreds of miles over seas and continents in cramped aircraft, giving very little consideration to the journey itself. But what if travel was more relaxing and not so stressful? What if we took days to reach our destination and arrived feeling refreshed and relaxed? This is exactly what Seymourpowell, a London-based design and innovation company, is proposing in its latest visionary transportation concept called Aircruise.

Tanya Weaver, our UK correspondent, spoke to Nick Talbot, Design director at Seymourpowell, about an impressive concept in visionary transportation.

Aircruise is a 265-metre tall luxurious airship concept powered by natural energy in the form of hydrogen and solar, and instead of taking a few hours to reach your destination it may take a few of days of drifting leisurely alongside the clouds.

“This Aircruise concept questions whether the future of luxury travel should be based around space-constrained, resource hungry and all too often stressful airline travel,” says Talbot. “A more serene transport experience will appeal to people looking for a more reflective journey, where the experience of travel itself is more important than getting from A to B quickly.”

With this self-generated project, Talbot and his team wanted to challenge our preconceptions about the way we travel in the future.

“Obviously when you are doing pretty much full-time client work there are constraints in terms of practicalities of production and so on, which sometimes can be a little bit of a dampener on unbridled creativity,” says Talbot.

“So, we decided that it was about time that we did another self-funded project – we have done quite a number of them over the years – and we decided that we wanted to do it in the transportation sector.”

The design process started off by brainstorming and kicking some different ideas around before settling on the idea of the classic Zeppelin airships of the 1930s. The design team felt that there is a certain emotional appeal and romanticism about these majestic airships that would whisk passengers across the Atlantic in comfort and style.

“As a starting point, the idea was to think about reinterpreting a lighter-than-air vessel for travel in the 21st century,” says Talbot.

The concept subsequently captured the imagination of Samsung Construction and Trading (C&T), the South Korean company who was the primary contractor on the recently opened Burj Dubai, a 828 metre skyscraper in Dubai.

They invested some money into the project and appointed Seymourpowell to further refine the idea, together with their own designers, and produce a de-tailed computer animation of the proposed experience.

Samsung C&T are especially interested in new materials for building and were intrigued by the advanced materials, particularly carbon composites and lightweight aerospace materials that Seymourpowell were proposing to use to construct the airship.

“This was a dream project for us, helping to realise a future of sustainable buildings combined with innovative and luxury lifestyle,” says Seung Min Kim, design director at Samsung C&T.

“In an age when environmental impact is a key consideration for architecture, we are keen to extend this vision of the future by searching for solutions that can be realised by 2015 – the year that many futurologists foresee as the turning point for the future.”

It was important that when it came to the interior design, which consists of a three-storey bar/lounge area, four duplex apartments, a penthouse and five smaller apartments, it was not only beautiful from a tactile point of view but would also enhance the experience of gently drifting alongside the clouds with uninterrupted views of Earth below.

As a result, the Samsung C&T team of interior designers and architects felt it would be important to replicate centuries-old Korean philosophies and traditions in the design – enhanced, of course, with cutting-edge modern technology.

For instance, in one of the apartment’s guest bedrooms, which has a very tranquil theme and feeling about it, at the push of a button, a screen – a bit like a giant iPhone – rises up from the floor.

“Guests can either study in the guest bedroom (that is why the information display comes up) or effectively use it as a space to just sit in peace and quiet and meditate,” explains Talbot. “So, the floor plan of the apartment is based very closely on a Korean tradition.”

Additionally, in the kitchen a raised plinth with cushions scattered on top of it is featured right next to the kitchen units. This is because traditionally Koreans will eat in very close proximity to the area where the food was prepared.

“Even though it is a very technologically advanced proposition, the actual layout and the way people would live on board this aircraft is rooted in something really quite old,” adds Talbot.

Externally, the structure consists of eight vertical composite lattices supporting four main envelopes with each containing a self-sealing lifting bag. These lifting bags contain 330 000 cubic metres of hydrogen gas that equates to 396 000 kilograms available lift at sea level.

Despite the perceived risks of hydrogen (who can forget the spectacular Hindenburg airship disaster of 1937 when the airship caught fire when attempting to dock and burst into flames within seconds), this gas has been chosen for its inherent lifting efficiency and as a power source.

“There has been a lot of debate about us suggesting hydrogen as the lifting gas,” says Talbot. “The fact is that it’s the lightest lifting gas available on the planet so it’s very efficient in terms of the amount that would be needed. Also, if we get access to very big volumes of hydrogen in the lifting bags, we can also use some of it as fuel.”

As a result, large surface area PEM (Polymer Electrolyte Membrane) fuel cells generate enough energy both for propulsion as well as providing onboard power and some drinking water. Additionally, this primary power generation will be augmented by flexible solar panels that cover the upper part of the envelope.

Aircruise’s average cruising speed is between 100 to 150 kilometres per hour, equating to 37 hours from London to New York and 90 hours from Los Angeles to Shanghai. The service ceiling is limited to 12 000 feet; however, if there are areas of interest en route, the airship can drop down to within a few hundred feet off the ground in order to give passengers a better view.

In fact, Talbot’s favourite feature in the concept design is the ‘moon pool’ – a glass viewing floor located at the very bottom of the three-storey bar and lounge area, which is surrounded by a ring of lounge seating.

“I just love the idea of being able to sit there with friends or loved ones with a cocktail in hand and look straight down to watch the world float by underneath,” says Talbot.

“You could be passing over the Serengeti or whale spotting in the Pacific and you would actually be able to drop down and see it close up from above. It’s almost like a flying glass-bottomed boat. I think that it would be a beautiful experience.”

The style, luxury and romantic appeal sound almost too good to be true and one is left wondering how long it will be until we will be seeing the Aircruise drifting across our skies.

According to Talbot, although it is a conceptual proposal – and there are challenges from an R&D and a materials point of view and it would require a huge investment – the transportation design team at Seymourpowell have developed a detailed and achievable technical specification for the airship.

It is a project that Talbot and his team have enjoyed working on because having the opportunity to be able to forecast and work out future scenarios is a welcome distraction from their ‘bread and butter’ client work. As he says, every now and then it’s good for them as designers to spread their wings a bit, so to speak, and do something really visionary.

“Its kind of our responsibility as designers, apart from being good fun, to make the time and effort to get involved in these visionary projects and bring them to the world.” 

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