Source: Varialift Airships. Analysis courtesy of Dr. Barry Prentice.
Airship technology has been available for more than a century. In the 1930s, large rigid airships were able to cross the Atlantic Ocean at 80 mph, carry up to 70 tons, while maintaining regular passenger schedules. However, due to rapid advances in propeller technology and safety concerns (e.g. the Hindenburg disaster of 1937), such technology was almost abandoned for commercial purposes. Airships were left to service small niche markets such as advertising and tourism. With advances in engineering, computers, engines, composite materials, and control systems, modern transport airships can be built to much higher standards and performance. For example, no current airship designs envision ground crews holding ropes. Modern airships would land autonomously, and cargo would be rolled on and off. They have a minimal footprint, require only a flat space to land, and can carry large heavy loads. They are also relatively affordable and sustainable. The most suitable markets that could see the application of airships concern supplying remote regions, particularly in the Arctic.
Transport airships are ideally suited for year-round northern transportation. The Canadian case is particularly revealing. For example, existing transportation systems cannot effectively address the mounting problems of Northern Canada. About 70% of Canada’s landmass has neither road nor rail access. Remote communities and resource developments depend on ice roads, summer sealifts, and small airplanes for crucial supplies. While warmer temperatures may extend the Arctic sealift period, the ice road season has been precariously reduced. In any year, ice roads can become impassable before all requested supplies are delivered. Climate change is also affecting existing infrastructure. Melting permafrost threatens airstrips and sections of the few all-weather road links in the North. Distances are vast, markets are thin, and generally, no backhaul loads exist. The formidable terrain encompasses muskeg, rock outcrops, poor drainage, permafrost, and many water crossings. Obtaining environmental approval is difficult, and land claims issues can drag on for decades. The costs of converting ice roads to all-weather roads are enormous. Gravel roads that could be built for half a million dollars per kilometer in southern Canada, can average $3 million per kilometer in the North. Each year Manitoba builds 2,200 km of ice roads, and Ontario builds 3,000 km. Just converting these networks to all-weather gravel roads could cost $15 billion, not to mention maintenance and snow-clearing costs.
The cost of supplying communities and mining settlements is very high. The only year-round transportation for many locations is by air, but this is mainly done with small aircraft using gravel landing strips. The cost of extending and paving runways, and using larger jet aircraft is prohibitive. Food prices in the North are 2.5 to 3 times more than in the rest of Canada. Transport airships would burn only one-quarter of the fuel of a similar-sized airplane, and are less expensive to build. For example, the Varialifter prototype with a 50-ton payload (above photo) created by a British company is priced at less than half the cost of an equivalent airplane. An all-aluminum airship, with an estimated commercial life of 40 years, is ideal for containing helium with a minimum loss. It remains to be seen which types of commercial applications such technology will be used for, but the Canadian arctic remains a strong test case.