Floating a new freight transport idea

WINNIPEG — Logging companies that have valuable natural resources stranded far from normal transportation infrastructure should consider the potential of an innovative new "sixth mode" of transportation: airships.

That’s the recommendation of an international group of transportation engineers and researchers who say unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) like balloons and zeppelins could easily do what is impossible or too costly for pipelines, trucks, trains, airplanes, and boats.

Their report on forestry transport was presented at the Canadian Transportation Research Forum by Dr. Barry Prentice, professor at the University of Manitoba’s I.H. Asper School of Business, Transport Institute.

"Why not have motorized balloons fly from outpost camps to some service station where freight can connect up to road or rail network," Prentice challenged his audience. "Airships could essentially provide the feeder routes for the logging industry where no other realistic alternative exists."

The report was prepared by Juergen Bock, a German engineering consultant, and Uwe Apel, a professor at Bremen University of Applied Sciences in Germany.

University prof Barry Prentice thinks air ships are
the future of remote shipping in Canada

Prentice, who describes himself as “the junior member of the team” is probably the foremost proponent for the use of airships for freight transport in Canada.

“I sincerely believe that Canada needs transport airships. We need them badly,” he says. “Some 70 percent of our land mass has no road or rail access and really doesn’t have much hope of rail or permanent road access in the future.”

The log harvesting scenario pitched by Bock, Apel, and Prentice consists of an unmanned teardrop shaped balloon filled with hydrogen, not helium, to be used not only as a lifting gas but as the fuel. It would be about 30 meters in diameter, with electrical propellers powered by two generators.

Such a vehicle would not be prohibitively expensive, either, he says. In fact, traditional airships, far more sophisticated than unmanned balloons, are manufactured for about a million dollars per tonne of lifting capacity.

Logs would be carried much the way helicopter logging is done, but without the significant downdraft and operating costs.
"UAVs would be a real benefit in remote areas," says Prentice. "Climate change is affecting the roads and landing strips.

Permafrost is melting and planning ice roads — certainly in the southern part of the north — is a growing challenge. They’re becoming more and more unreliable.”


Crossing water sources, accommodating wild life, working with first nations people, are all challenges for the forest industry and "roads are not very welcome in many places,” says Prentice.

"And once you’ve exhausted the logging the next time you’ll need that road is 40 years in the future when the forest is mature again. There’s not going to be much left of the road by that time."

And while the road situation is making things harder for natural resources companies, their products — including minerals — are in increasing demand worldwide.

"It is very clear to me that this is the future for Canada, as it has been our past. Most of those resources lie in the north and most are basically inaccessible. There are rich deposits of minerals in the north that would have been mined out 50 years ago if they’d been accessible by roads. They’re still there and waiting to be developed."

Prentice points out that most of the technology needed for such a project already exists.

"Everything is off-the-shelf," he says. "In the space of two years we could be using airships, if the political will existed. And it’s not that expensive. For the price of a couple of bridges, we could have an industry."

Allan Janssen  

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