WINNIPEG, Man. -- Are airships a viable solution for northern Canada’s unique transportation challenges? Supporters and critics of this fledgling mode shared their views at the recent Northern Exposure 2 conference hosted by the University of Manitoba’s Transport Institute.
The use of airships for transporting goods to Canada’s remote northern communities may be a relatively new idea but the concept of airships or LTA (lighter than air) craft, which stay aloft by having a large envelope filled with a gas less dense than the surrounding atmosphere and can be propelled and steered through the air using rudder, propellers and other thrust mechanisms, is more than 300 years old. In 1670 the Jesuit Father Francesco Lana de Terzi published a description of an "Aerial Ship" supported by four copper spheres from which the air was evacuated. More than 100 years later, in 1785, Jean-Pierre Blanchard crossed the English Channel in a balloon equipped with flapping wings for propulsion and a bird-like tail for steering.
Airships were widely used before the 1940s, but their use decreased over time as their capabilities were surpassed by those of airplanes and a series of high-profile accidents -- the 1937 burning of the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg being the most memorable -- raised safety concerns. They are still used today in niche applications such as advertising and as camera platforms for sporting events, aerial observation and geological surveys but as a mode of transport their use is minimal. There may be just 12-15 such ships flying around the world with none in Africa or Australia, according to Fred Edworthy, vice president business development for Worldwide Aeros, a company building a prototype cargo airship. Aeros is one of only two US companies with an FAA type airship production certificate.
So why are airships now being considered as an option in helping boost development of Canada’s north? Northern all-weather roads are expensive to build -- they can cost about twice as much to construct and maintain as roads in southern parts of Canada (See our online story “Can the challenges of our northern road infrastructure keep up with the opportunities for development?”) Fixed wing aircraft require landing strips and the building of fueling stations nearby. Global warming is also starting to affect the solidity of the soil on those airstrips. Sea lift serves the most remote northern communities if they are close to water but can’t reach them year round due to ice formation (although the ice free season is getting longer).
Dale Uskoski, operations manager for BBE , a Yellowknife-based 3PL specializing in orchestrating transportation moves in remote areas, believes that although sea lift will remain the most cost-effective option for servicing northern communities, airships would help keep freight moving during the winter months when ice keeps the ships at dock.
The size of the ground crew operation required to keep an airship steady while it unloaded cargo has until recently proven a major limitation. Ballast control, which provides the capability to offload cargo even when the airship is in hover mode, has been a critical issue. The need to conduct maintenance and repairs in hangers, which can be expensive and difficult to build in remote regions, was another limiting factor. But recent innovations has even the US Department of Defense thinking seriously about airships. General Raymond Johns, who headed up the US Air Mobility Command, is on record as saying the promise of airships is something that needs to be explored.
Current airship prototypes, such as the Aeroscraft and the Varialift, the vision of an English company, are able to take off and land vertically at maximum operational payload. Built-in ballast control allows for the delivery of cargo with no local infrastructure necessary, according to Edworthy.
Edworthy's prototype airship has a rigid aeroshell with an internal skeleton structure which maintains the shape of the airship without the need for internal pressure. It has a 66 ton payload capacity and a range of 3,100 nautical miles at maximum payload. It cruises at 100 kts with a top speed of 120 kts. It cruises at an altitude of 12,000 feet.
The Varialift is an all aluminium airship design, which according to president Alan Handley, has a 40-year work life. His company is looking to mass produce an airship with 50 metric tonne payload capacity with a 250 metric tonne capacity model to follow.
Edworthy told conference attendees that airships can provide transport at one third the cost of fixed wing aircraft. Handley claimed that airships burn 80-90% less fuel than equivalent fixed wing aircraft. He envisions airships being used to cost effectively deliver cargo ranging from low density goods to large prefabricated structures up to 500 metric tonnes.
Sorobey was similarly enthusiastic about how airships could be put to use in serving remote communities.
"We could potentially ship all our fresh commodities with airships. I see that as a very viable option when the technology of these airships comes to fruition."
Edworthy had a different view of how airships were most likely to be used.
"I don't believe carrying fresh fruits to remote communities will be the main driver for airships. It will be a big event such as maintaining northern sovereignty or a mining project that needs to be developed," he said.
But Joe Barnsley, a partner in Pitblado LLP, a Winnipeg law firm advising aviation clients, are not a magic bullet to reducing the high freight costs in northern supply chains and worried that their use could upset the delicate balance necessary to keep the transport companies serving remote communities profitable.
“If we think there is a magic bullet with airships, there isn’t…When you’re talking about remote supply you’re talking about freight and people. You can’t separate the two,” he said in pointing out that these airships (so far) are not designed to carry passenger traffic. He explained that fixed winged craft rely on both passenger and freight traffic to generate enough revenue to remain profitable. The revenues from one operation must subsidize the other because northern transport is wracked with so many unpredictable situations. For example, there are volatile swings in passenger traffic from one flight to another – on a good day there aren’t enough seats to handle all the passengers and on others the plane could have no passengers at all. There is also the reality that there is little backhaul out of northern communities.
“That’s why aggressive competition won’t work in these markets. It’s in fact going to tip the boat and upset the balance that we have,” Barnsley worried.
He did, however, believe there is case to be made for airships being used to service mines and other project work in the north.
If there is such consensus on the viability of airships, what can the Canadian government do to speed up commercialization? Edworthy suggested that while he is under no illusion that government would be willing to sign a blank cheque, help with financial guarantees to reduce the investment risk would be helpful. Airships cost upwards of $30 million to construct. Barnsley suggested the government can assist on the regulatory front with legislation that eases manufacturing and operation of airships. Traditionally new aircraft designs take years of testing before they are given the go-ahead from regulators. The University of Manitoba's Dr. Barry Prentice, who co-moderated the conference with the Transport Institute's Al Phillips, suggested the government could borrow from the past and help out the airship industry by granting it land along its flight path in the same way it did with the railways back in the 1800s.