Airships may soon soar in the cold skies of northern Canada and Alaska, bringing supplies to remote mining communities where planes can't always fly and roads are cost-prohibitive.
British airship manufacturer Hybrid Air Vehicles has announced a major contract with Canada's Discovery Air Innovations to build airships capable of lifting as much as 50 tons, delivering freight at one-quarter the cost of other alternatives. Though various militaries have expressed interest in airships, this is HAV's first commercial contract. The first ship is expected by 2014.
While the word "airship" may conjure images of prewar zeppelins and Goodyear advertisements, the aircraft are quite useful for carrying cargo to remote locations, because they have greater payload flexibility than airplanes or trucks. They're often cheaper to operate, too.
"If you look at the mining operations in the North, the traditional way of opening a mine is to build a road to it. That's very expensive and time consuming," said Barry Prentice, a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba. He builds, tests and studies airships.
Prentice estimated the cost of a road to a gold mine in Baker Lake, Nunavut, at $110 million - an amount not easily recovered if the mine shuts down - and said obtaining the permits to build it can take as long as three years.
"The day after your mine is finished, the road has no value whatsoever," he said. "The idea of being able to use an airship to bring the product back out means you could start your operations sooner, and have the flexibility, if mineral prices turn, to cease operations temporarily."
Prentice is working on cold-weather testing of smaller airships, the kind that may be able to carry supplies to existing Arctic communities.
"For a mining operation, you need something that's really muscle-bound," he said. "But if you're taking goods into a remote community, that's actually too big," he said.
It's a renaissance for the airship, though today's craft bear little resemblance to the hydrogen-filled, metal-framed behemoths of the 1920s and '30s. New ships have rigid envelopes that eliminate the need for a frame, and they are filled with nonflammable helium. Hybrid aircraft can even be heavier than air, taking off like a conventional airplane and landing softly like a hovercraft.
"They're almost nothing like the ones that have been produced in the past," Prentice said.
Though modern airships are novel, the technology on board is hardly cutting-edge.
"What we are seeing today could've been done any time within the past 25 years," Prentice said. "The technology has been around that long. The problem has been a lack of business confidence."
Wary of the unusual technology, few businesses have wanted to take the risk of building hangars and training pilots. The public sector hasn't stepped up to the plate, either.
"Truck drivers don't build their own roads, and airlines don't build airports," Prentice said. "This is a role where the public should come in - setting up mooring masts, locating zones for the airships to land in."
According to Prentice, military interest in using airships as unmanned surveillance drones and cargo-lifters has jump-started civilian curiosity. When military users prove airships' utility in difficult environments, he expects commercial demand to increase.
"Once airships are back in the skies again, there's going to be quite a stampede of people saying, ‘Me too,'" he said.
Image: Discovery Air Innovations/Lockheed Martin
This story originally appeared on Wired Autopia on September 6th, 2011, and was republished with permission.
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