Long ignored buoyant aircraft are making a comeback as the need to ship cargo to remote locations intensifies.
Except for the occasional sighting at a Super Bowl half-time, buoyant aircraft (better known as blimps) have been out of sight and out of vogue in aerospace circles for nearly a century. Images of the Hindenburg crash of 1937 grounded future airship development and continue to haunt those who strive to commercialize the flying machines.
Now, after a decade of steadily rising fuel costs and the hunt for high-priced resources moves inexorably farther into remote, hard-to-reach locations, interest in airships has experienced a renaissance. While still considered somewhat of a “fringe” mode of transport, proponents say the economic tipping point in favor of modern heavy-lift airships—capable of ferrying 50 tons or more—is only few years away.
“We have more demand for more things moving by air than ever before,” says Dr. Barry Prentice, professor of supply chain management at the I.H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba. “But we also have more places in the world we want to get to that don’t have infrastructure; 70 percent of Canada’s land mass, for example, has no roads.”
Where the Roads End
An outspoken supporter of airships for more than a decade, Prentice points to the fact that approximately 30,000 Manitobans in remote communities depend on the annual construction of 2,200 kilometers of winter ice roads for critical supplies. If that construction is delayed, due to a short winter, supplies have to flown in, driving the cost of goods to two or three times their market price. At the same time, the expense of permanent roads, he says, is enormous and is money better spent elsewhere.
“Building all-weather gravel roads in northern Manitoba costs $1 million per kilometer,” Prentice says. “It can be done, but when you have Muskeg, permafrost, rock outcrops and so on, it just isn’t economic. So what’s left?”
More than an advocate, Dr. Prentice is also president and CEO of Buoyant Aircraft Systems International (BASI) with partner and BASI Chief Science Officer Dale George. In December 2011, the pair unveiled their 24-metre long Giizhigo-Misameg (which means Sky Whale in Oji-Cree) airship at the University of Manitoba.
The relatively small-scale blimp will be used for research to test the vessel’s ballast exchange, electrical propulsion and fuel cells under cold weather conditions. Once proven, the intent is to build much larger airships to service resource operations in Northern Canada as well as remote communities.
“Mining will be the first big markets for airships,” says Prentice. “The problem with this type of transport, given the value of the equipment and the number of cycles you have to make during a year to pay for it, is that your market length is in the 250 to 300 mile range. We have many markets like that in Canada. All you have to do is look at a map and see where the roads and rail lines end.”
Combat to Cargo
As with many advances in aerospace technology, interest in modern airship initially took off with the military. In fact, in last six years, the various branches of the U.S. armed forces have invested more than $1.13 billion in four airship programs.
The largest deal has been the $517-million contract signed by the U.S. Army with Northrop Grumman in June 2010 to buy at least three airships. Destined for surveillance duty in Afghanistan, the US Army’s long-endurance multi-intelligence vehicle (LEMV) will be designed and built by Northrop partner, Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) of the U.K.