Designing and developing a self-piloted airship

A rendered image of an airship under development

Airships, which are typically aircraft that float because they are inflated with gas lighter than air, are slower than airplanes but more efficient with regard to energy consumption. They have many uses, but being extremely light, are difficult to control. This is what motivated Sohan Suvarna, a research scholar with the IITB-Monash Research Academy, to work on a project titled, ‘Design and Development of Autonomous Airships’.

“The biggest challenge that airship operators face is the effect of crosswinds,” reveals Sohan. “These big balloons are literally at the mercy of winds. This is why they are not as popular as airplanes, in spite of being cost-effective. Several researchers have been working on developing effective control laws for these vehicles. My goal is to develop an airship with excellent lateral stability.”

For over half a century after World War II, airships were used mainly for sightseeing or advertising. Now, the uses range from surveillance—particularly in archaeological, ecological, agricultural and livestock studies—to weather forecasting, pollution control, and even as network/ Wifi routers.

While airplanes use most of their power in the generation of lift, an airship relies mainly on aerostatics for lift generation. It uses most of its power in manoeuvring and counteracting crosswinds.

Sohan’s research is multidisciplinary—requiring the amalgamation of design, simulation and implementation. The potential research outcomes are many:

• Design and fabrication of an airship capable of effective control. (One of the airships that Sohan has built can be viewed here:

• Development of a high fidelity versatile flight dynamics model to anticipate the flight of the airship in real time. This is like predicting how the airship would behave, given ambient conditions
• Development of a control law that could guide the airship, and
• Implementation of the developed control law and navigation algorithm into an actual airship

Sohan Suvarna’s research flight plan

The IITB-Monash Research Academy is a collaboration between India and Australia that endeavours to strengthen scientific relationships between the two countries. Graduate research scholars like Sohan study for a dually-badged PhD from both IIT Bombay and Monash University, spending time at both institutions to enrich their research experience.

Says Prof. Murali Sastry, CEO of the IITB-Monash Research Academy, “The applications of an autonomous airship are limited only by imagination. Since unmanned aerial vehicles do not require a pilot onboard, their endurance is not restricted by the physiological capabilities of the pilot. Besides, in an age of diminishing energy sources and fuel-hungry jets, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to look for energy-efficient transportation.”

Sohan, incidentally, is also passionate about stargazing. For this researcher, the sky is clearly not the limit!

Sohan Suvarna
Research scholar: Sohan Suvarna, IITB-Monash Research Academy
Project title: Design and Development of Autonomous Airships
Supervisors: Prof. Rajkumar Pant, Prof. Arpita Sinha, Prof. Hoam Chung
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