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People & Culture

Arctic airships

These dirigibles might be the solution to transportation challenges in the changing North

  • Mar 31, 2012
  • 868 words
  • 4 minutes
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Two massive air hangars loom large on the skyline of a sleepy British village. One is used as a set for Hollywood films, such as the Harry Potter franchise, which is why the flying Ford Anglia is parked outside. The other hangar is poised to house a different type of flying vessel: a revolutionary new airship that could transform the Arctic and put every remote region of the planet within reach.

The Cardington hangars in Bedfordshire have a storied history dating back nearly a century as a manufacturing and design hub for airships, including the ill-fated R101, which crashed in France in 1930, killing 48 passengers and crew. Seven years later, the hydrogen-filled LZ-129 Hindenburg burst into flames while docking in New Jersey, effectively ending the passenger and cargo dirigibles industry. Today, Warner Bros. makes movies and stores props in one Bedfordshire hangar, while a locally based aerospace company, Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd. (HAV), plans to build a bigger, safer airship in the other. And when the futuristic, helium-filled floating cargo vehicles are ready to fly, a Yellowknife-based company intends to put them to work.

“We believe that once this HAV technology matures, it’s going to be ideal for locations in the Arctic where there’s no rail or infrastructure in place,” says Stephen Newton, director of business development at Discovery Air Innovations (DAI), a wholly owned subsidiary of Yellowknife’s Discovery Air, which operates more than 130 aircraft. “It’s going to completely revolutionize the logistics of the supply chain. Airships won’t just be shipping goods. They can be used to transport houses, pipes for pipelines, bulk fuel, construction goods, refrigerated containers, medical teams, passengers and more.”

Under an agreement signed last August, DAI has the option to buy airships manufactured by HAV under its Heavy Lift Air Vehicle program. The deal is subject to successful completion of the craft’s final design and commercial terms, but Newton says that if the anticipated agreement is signed this year, the first operational hybrid air vehicle will be shipped to Canada in 2014.

Shaped like a giant wing and capable of carrying about 16 small cars or two or three prefab houses — more than twice the payload of a C-130 Hercules — the hybrid air vehicle’s massive hull, or envelope, will be 115 metres long, with two smaller envelopes inside. Like giant balloons, the 55-metres-wide by 35-metres-tall vessels will be filled with nearly 100,000 cubic metres of nonflammable helium, which provides 60 percent of the lift. The other 40 percent comes from the aerodynamic design of the wing-shaped hull. This will allow the ships to lift straight into the air and hover with precision.

Even if something goes “catastrophically wrong,” says Newton, the vehicle can glide airborne for a long time — especially in cold, dense air — and land safely on water, snow, ice or land. “It’s not going to go down like the Hindenburg,” he says.

The hybrid air vehicle will be ideal for Arctic mining and oil and gas operations because it doesn’t need an airstrip, says Newton, who is fielding inquiries from hundreds of companies working in hard-to-reach regions of northern Canada, sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, Europe and South America. Their challenges range from moving pineapples between continents to lowering maintenance workers onto wind turbines in the North Sea.

The hybrid air vehicle will use a fraction of the fuel required by an airplane, lowering greenhouse-gas emissions. Because an airship can travel from point to point, it will also reduce the need to build a more permanent infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, ports and airports. And that, according to airship guru Barry Prentice, is where its real value lies.

“The federal government is showing no interest in building new all-weather roads — even maintaining existing infrastructure is getting too costly,” says Prentice, a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. “With climate change pretty well established now, the end of the ice road is in sight. Any politician who isn’t willing to pursue airships is being negligent.”

Prentice estimates that an airship capable of lifting 50 tonnes of cargo would cost roughly $45 million. He predicts that, based on pent-up demand, the industry could see 10 to 15 years of explosive growth, including the creation of a Canadian manufacturing centre, most likely in Montréal, but possibly in Toronto, Edmonton or Winnipeg, whichever is first to build an enormous hangar.

HAV’s hybrid air vehicle technology is also being applied in a new unmanned surveillance airship it is building with L.A.-based Northrop Grumman Corp. for the U.S. military. Two other American-based aerospace companies are eager to get their airship designs on the market.

Prentice calls airships “disruptive technology,” a game changer that, like railways, automobiles and airplanes, will usher in a new epoch in the world economy. “Transport airships,” he says, “will transform the economy of the North.”

They may become a smarter, cleaner, safer way to move goods and people, but by opening up previously unreachable resources in a greener fashion, we could slow climate change with one hand and turbocharge it with the other.


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