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Not a bird, not a plane: Startup hopes to hit skies with ‘eco-friendly’ blimps

Israel-based Atlas LTA seeks to build luxury dirigibles for tourists, bringing new tech to traditional crafts and aiming at zero carbon footprint

An illustrative image of an Atlas craft (Courtesy)
An illustrative image of an Atlas craft (Courtesy)

Blimps – or those non-rigid airships that rely on the pressure of lifting gas to fly — hold a variety of associations.

For some, they recall the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, when the German passenger dirigible caught fire during landing; others may remember the scene of German officers chasing Indiana Jones and his father on a D-138 commercial zeppelin in “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade,” the 1989 Steven Spielberg movie starring Harrison Ford. Others know the airship from sporting events, a three-dimensional oval hovering over the players, giving rise to the term “blimp cam,” while for others still the craft evokes a sense of romanticism and nostalgia.

These kinds of vehicles have always been the passion of Gennadiy Verba, CEO and founder of Israel-based Atlas LTA, a company that wants to bring the latest technologies to design and produce what they refer to as “lighter-than-air” vehicles — airships, gas-powered balloons and other floating aerial crafts.

“I liked airships since I was a kid,” Verba said. “I always believed that this forgotten technology really deserves a much better future. Today we have much more suitable materials, more advanced ways to design them and the demand is growing.”

Atlas CEO and founder Gennadiy Verba (courtesy),

Born in Ukraine, Verba moved to Israel in 2016 shortly after setting up Atlas there together with a few other partners attracted by Israel’s fast-growing tech ecosystem and spirit of innovation.

Verba wants to create what he hopes will be the most environmentally friendly airship in the world from which tourists can look down upon sites from the luxury of an aircraft that has a spacious interior, large chairs, huge windows and observation decks for around 17 passengers to enjoy. The Atlas-11 airship is an updated and modernized model of the traditional AU-30 airships, which have in past years been used for surveillance and photography.

These airships, he said, would be as safe or safer than other aircraft, as they’d all be certified and approved by aviation authorities.

The crafts use an electric propulsion system that leaves no carbon footprint, he said, and the launch system is powered by a safe helium gas, creating lift without burning any fuel. The gas stays inside the ship’s body — confined by its curved exterior — and there’s no pollution. Unlike airplanes or helicopters, there is no asphalt or concrete needed for a takeoff and landing space. The airship just needs open space of around 200-300 meters in diameter.

Verba hopes to launch this service within the next two years, with a 30-minute ride on the Atlas-11 projected to cost around $200.

At an altitude of 300-1,500 meters (1,000-5,000 feet), a speed of 60-90 km/h (37-55 mph) and a low-noise electrical motor, Atlas-11 would, quite literally, float through the air, he said.

“The airship can give a completely different experience to the travelers,” Verba said. “Very smooth flight, big windows, no vibration, low noise, because we are floating in the air, not really fighting with the air.”

Atlas-11 does not intend to compete with other forms of transportation but instead “be its own niche,” Verba said. He wants to grow the industry and perhaps lead the way for other modes of transportation to become more efficient and sustainable.

‘The air holds us’

Right now, Atlas is working on design modification and is in discussions with investors and municipalities that want to bring more tourists to their areas. The current plan is to use a hybrid electric propulsion system, before moving over to a fully electric system in the future that relies on batteries. There is no full-scale prototype just yet, though the expected size will be about 72 meters long and a little over 21 meters high.

Atlas is generating lots of international interest, Verba said, with inquiries in Asia, Europe and Israel. He also said they are in discussions with partners in the Gulf who are interested in the technology. With an operational base outside of Jerusalem, once the prototype is constructed Atlas can navigate the certification process, he said.

Sightseeing destinations, as of now, would include flights over Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. All flights would be coordinated with air traffic control, and Verba said in the future, when the tourism industry recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, there will be more opportunity in regard to flight destinations. He said he hopes to deploy Atlas to any attractive destination around the world.

The dream, Verba said, is to create an airship big enough to eventually also move serious cargo, though he acknowledges that the tourism industry is a good start for the contemporary use of airships.

Unlike Atlas, the Greek mythology Titan god who was punished by having to hold up the sky forever, Verba said his Atlas does just the opposite.

“The air holds us,” he said. “We cannot hold the sky; that’s kind of the opposite situation. The sky holds us.”

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