THE ANUMÁ AEROSPACE STORY
By James Little
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in aviation. I spent the better part of my childhood reading anything I could find on aviation and aviation history, building airplane models, playing with toy airplanes, and doodling designs of various aircraft. I started my college career in aerospace engineering, but found I was more interested in environmental science and sustainability, and any discussion of sustainability in aerospace, or any of the engineering disciplines for that matter, was virtually nonexistent at the time. Despite working in other engineering fields, my interest in aerospace never waned, and I continued researching and doing high-level aircraft design in my spare time, with a distinct focus on low-speed, high-lift short takeoff and landing (STOL) and vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft.
Then, in 2013, I ran across an article about Aeroscraft, founded by Igor Pasternak, who was testing a new airship design that seemed to have solved some of the drawbacks of helium lift, other than the cost and permeation problems. The low energy requirements of airships really planted a seed. Lighter than air (LTA) aircraft are inherently more efficient than heavier than air (HTA) aircraft because they use aerostatic lift, or buoyancy, to stay aloft rather than aerodynamic lift. A fixed wing or rotor aircraft has to continuously expend energy moving its wings through the air just to stay aloft, while a balloon just floats.
Fast forward to 2015, and I was working as a systems engineer and product designer for a startup developing a novel way to do water desalination. Part of that solution involved working with vacuum. While researching vacuum engineering, I stumbled across the 350 year old concept of vacuum lift, first proposed by the father of aeronautics, mathematician and physicist Francesco Lana de Terzi. I realized that vacuum lift had the potential to overcome all of the drawbacks of helium, allowing the development of high-efficiency, heavy-lift, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft. That is, if you could get it to work.
Vacuum lift wasn’t possible in Lana’s day. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz proved it mathematically at the time, and that mathematical proof still stands, based on two key assumptions. The first, that the vacuum is complete, or total, and second that the vacuum is contained in a spherical, homogeneous, thin shell. There still isn’t a material capable of achieving this.
But I wondered, “What if the vacuum sphere wasn’t homogeneous?” And materials have come so far. The strongest material in Lana’s day was steel with an ultimate tensile strength (UTS) of around 500 MPa and a density of 7.8 g/cm3. Now we have carbon fiber with UTS of 7000 MPa and a density of 1.8 g/cm3, or to put it another way, 14 times stronger at a quarter of the weight. Maybe this idea was worth investigating. So, I did an extensive literature review. The reality seemed to be that only a handful of people had done any work on the problem, very little of it recently, and that most simply accepted that it was impossible.
“Everything is theoretically impossible, until it is done. One could write a history of science in reverse by assembling the solemn pronouncements of highest authority about what could not be done and could never happen.” - Robert Heinlein
What I could see was the convergence of the original idea, advances in materials engineering, and advancements in structural engineering and manufacturing making this concept possible. This, like any other engineering problem, was solvable.
So, I started working on it in my spare time. Then I left the startup I was in to pursue the idea full-time, which culminated in filing the first patent in April 2020. Diana Little came on board as CEO in January 2021 to assist with the business side and we incorporated as Anumá Aerospace, LLC in March 2021.
We get asked about the name a lot. I spent some time trying to come up with a good name. I wanted something like “Skyship”, but any possible combination of those things in English were in use, so I tried Latin, and ran into the same problem. Greek was all used up too. I decided to skip to the end - the earliest written alphabetic language - Akkadian/Sumerian. Anu was the Akkadian personification of, and word for, the sky and má meant ship. I thought Anu má rolled off the tongue well, so that was it. Anumá Aerospace. I also derived our logo from the cuneiform for Anu, resembling a star, turning the stylus shapes into rockets in a circle and reversing the image in the sky colors of blue and white.
Human flight started with LTA aircraft, the first human free-flight taking place in a hot air balloon in 1783. A hydrogen balloon flight followed within weeks. LTA was the only game in town for the next 120 years. Even with the invention of the airplane, LTA continued to dominate with British and German airships flying millions of kilometers back and forth across the oceans, carrying thousands of paying customers, and even circumnavigating the globe.
The first controlled flight of an HTA aircraft took place in 1903, just 119 years ago. That first airplane flight went 37 meters for 12 seconds, which is about 11 kilometers per hour. The aviation speed record now stands at 3,529 kilometers per hour. We have aircraft that cross oceans every day, even some that have flown non-stop around the world. We fly as high as the upper reaches of the atmosphere. The trends in aviation have been to go higher, faster, and farther, driven at first mostly by improvements in reciprocating internal combustion engines and then the advent of the jet engine.
But all of that progress was accomplished by leveraging a seemingly endless supply of cheap, energy-dense fuel that literally came out of the ground. What we’ve now realized is that all of that progress had costs we weren’t taking into consideration, and that bill has now come due.
Anthropogenic climate change is an existential threat to humanity, our civilization, and the ecosystem that supports us. We’re committed to finding real, working solutions to decarbonize industry. We decided to work on one of the most difficult - long-haul, heavy-lift transportation.
In 2020, 1.85 billion metric tons of cargo were shipped globally in container ships. That same year, 55.4 million metric tons of cargo were carried on aircraft, mostly on jets. Those container ships emitted an estimated 140 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere that year, while aviation accounted for 584 million metric tons of CO2. Air cargo accounts for about 19% of that at 111 million metric tons. So, air cargo represents just 3% of the cargo moved around the world by those two transport modes, while contributing 44% of the emitted CO2. Jets do two things very well; they get cargo where it needs to be quickly and reliably, but they are incredibly emissive.
At Anumá Aerospace, we believe airships will have a distinct role to play in decarbonizing the cargo transport sector. Their low energy requirements make them far easier to electrify than HTA aircraft. It is possible to build airships capable of transoceanic delivery of a hundred metric tons or more of cargo anywhere in the world within 7 to 10 days, with very little required infrastructure, little to no emissions, and at very low operational cost.
Airships have many advantages. Because they operate with aerostatic lift, or buoyancy, they don’t require a constant expenditure of energy to stay aloft, so they have lower energy requirements. This makes them far easier to electrify and to have longer ranges. They are capable of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) which reduces the need for ground-based infrastructure such as improved airports. It also eliminates the need for surface-based transportation infrastructure and investment in surface-based transportation infrastructure, such as roads and bridges for trucks, tracks for trains, and container ports for container ships. VTOL also allows easier and more affordable access to communities, markets, and resources in remote areas, as well as providing remote communities better and more affordable access to goods, services, and markets. This also means airships fly over disturbances and disruptions, such as blocked canals, backed up ports, traffic jams, weigh stations, toll booths, flooded roads, washed out bridges, etc. They’re able to provide access to areas inaccessible to almost any other transport mode.
But current airships also have some drawbacks. Due to the high cost of helium, airships can’t simply release their helium when they need to reduce their lift. Because of this, they have difficulty managing their buoyancy which leads to problems changing altitude, landing, loading, and unloading cargo. They’re also expensive to operate. Vacuum lift solves these problems elegantly.
So, that’s where we started, and we’re on a path to make the vacuum airship a reality, solving the helium problem, and decarbonizing long-haul, heavy-lift transportation.