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How Modern-Day Dirigibles Can Plug The World's Transit Gaps  

by Mark Hay

October 8, 2015
Aeroscraft airship, image courtsey of Aeros

As any good steampunk will tell you, about a century ago airplanes and airships (blimps, dirigibles, zeppelins) shared the skies, vying almost neck-and-neck for dominance. From the turn of the 20th century through the 1930s, spacious lighter-than-air craft—usually rigid-framed ships like zeppelins with “gondola” compartments below the balloons—ferried passengers and cargo across nations and oceans. Starting in 1925, the United States even created a helium stockpile to service our airship fleets. Then in 1937 the Hindenburg crashed in New Jersey—it wasn’t the first airship accident, but the well-documented horror of its explosion soured the global public on dirigibles. Governments continued to use the craft for surveillance throughout WWII, but eventually even they were forced to scrap their fleets in what many industrial romanticists regard as a tragic, paranoid denial of a technology’s potential.  

Yet despite decades of relegation to roles as tourist attractions or advertising gimmicks, airships may be on the verge of a comeback. This resurgence will be fueled not by impractical nostalgia or fandom, but by incredible advances in airship technology that have made these craft both immeasurably safer than their predecessors, and perfect vessels for certain niche conditions. And it seems like this phoenix-like rebirth of everyone’s favorite forgotten tech might just begin in the Canadian north.

It’s worth acknowledging that this isn’t the first time folks have tried to revive airships. Since the mid-1900s, every few years someone comes forward to talk about the historic fuel efficiency provided by the crafts’ buoyancy, the cargo capacity of massive gondolas, or the sturdiness of new aerodynamic designs (filled with non-reactive helium rather than the Hindenburg’s explosive hydrogen). But these past sales pitches always fell short, because much as it may pain airship advocates to admit, dirigibles were slated to fail on the transit market. Only 20 percent as fast as a jet at best, not perceptibly swifter than well-established, high-capacity train, ship, or truck services, and burdened by low maneuverability in weather conditions, airships have never been able to find an ideal economic niche.

Lockheed Martin's P-791 Airship on its first flight. Image by Bob Driver / Lockheed Martin

Recently though, logistics and manufacturing experts in Canada have started to speculate that dirigibles might be able to help them out in the peculiar strictures of far northern Canada. According to an article published last month in Canadian Manufacturing, up to 70 percent of the nation’s landmass (2.7 million square miles) is inaccessible by year-round roads or rail lines; only some of this vast waste is served by seasonal shipping lanes or ice roads. As a result, not only dozens of small communities, but vast tracts of untapped natural resources remain isolated. Experts have long mused that they could clear noxious muskegs and lay high-tech tracks and tarmac over permafrost. But these solutions would be incredibly expensive compared to using airships.

Airships have come a long ways since the millennium. Major firms like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumann, recognizing the crafts’ fuel efficiency, cargo capacity, and flight duration capabilities (many ships can stay in the air for weeks) never totally abandoned airships. And latter-day little guys like Advanced Technologies Group, Aeros, and Cargolifter have joined in on the speculative party too. Together they’ve developed innovations like bulletproof, ultra-light skin to prevent punctures without sacrificing buoyancy; aerodynamic designs that allow a degree of stability and directional control once believed impossible; hover-cushions allowing ships to land on any terrain without runways, stations, or ground crews; and Aeros’ rapid helium compression system that enables vertical takeoffs and landings. A few craft, like Aeros’s Aeroscraft, slated for release this year, incorporate almost all of these advances and can thus carry enormous loads—66 metric tons in their smallest model, 250 tons in their midsized model, and up to 500 tons in their largest speculative model, versus the 75 tons of a common jet and the 275 tons of the world’s largest cargo jets. Models like the Aeroscraft can reach the most inaccessible environments, land without any infrastructure, hover for ages if needed, and do it all with a fraction of the fuel a jet would require. Airships also emit their pollutants higher in the stratosphere, where they’ll do less environmental damage anyway.

Basically, we’re talking about “hybrid” dirigibles, incorporating gas engines and airplane-like designs, capable of carrying an entire construction crane into the middle of nowhere—the places no other form of transit can reach—easily. It costs a lot to use an Aeroscraft right now ($25 million a year for the 66 ton model and $55 million for the 250 ton model), but given the needs and potential of regions like the Canadian north, and the prohibitive expenses or insurmountable hurdles posed by other forms of transit, that’s worth it to local logisticians.

And it may be worth it to many other players as well. Some estimates claim that modern airships will be able to rival the cost-efficiency of marine cargo ships at loads of 200 tons, offering a form of shipping untethered from costly and limited infrastructural hubs like ports and terminals. Some think airships could become even more cost-effective and create jobs for remote communities if we embraced hydrogen cells again rather than helium. Sure, hydrogen would still be flammable, but not really any more so than gasoline, so with the proper safety controls we could achieve greater lift, lower fuel costs, and lower emissions. Plus target communities could generate hydrogen on-site using electrolysis systems, generating local income and allowing dirigibles to travel without bulky fuel stores, accommodating heavier and thus even more cost-efficient cargo loads.

Beyond the likes of Canadian developers, this promise has attracted the interests of aid agencies, development firms, and governments around the world, eager to ship supplies, airlift entire populations, or do surveillance in the most inaccessible parts of the world. Along with offering increased carrying capacity and access, airships could load and unload anywhere, mitigating the pressures to develop new seaports and airports. The US military in particular has poured cash into these new dirigibles—up to $1 billion in recent years by some estimates. Most of that’s for cargo capabilities, but some of it’s for projects slated to put airships into the stratosphere, 10,000 to 19,000 feet above sea level, with sensors and communications equipment that could hover above the earth using minimal fuel, massively increasing our monitoring and espionage capabilities. Government funding is a fickle thing—many projects (like DARPA’s fantastically named Project Walrus) fall apart with funding cuts or priority reallocations. But cash infusions are slowly bring dirigibles closer to the mass market for every other kind of use imaginable—even luxury tourism in the form of flying resorts, which firms like Thomson Holidays hope could be a non-negligible phenomenon in the travel industry by 2030.

None of this means dirigibles will soon fill the skies, displacing 747s. The slow speed of modern airships still precludes using them for most human transit, or rapid shipping concerns. But it does mean that we may finally have found a place in the world for the modern rigid airship. And that niche might not just fulfill nerd fantasies, but also serve long-neglected populations, improve our responses to disasters, relieve infrastructural stresses and imperatives, and allow for more bespoke, cheap shipping (especially in impoverished regions where accessibility has always jacked up the cost of living). So while dirigibles probably won’t be conquering the airways anytime soon, there are a lot of good reasons to be hopeful about this once-marginalized technology. And though a future of giant cargo airships won’t bring back the halcyon days of gondola dining rooms and mass zeppelin travel, it’s still a more glorious destiny than metonymy with Goodyear and anachronistic steampunk longing.  

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How Modern-Day Dirigibles Can Plug The World's Transit Gaps