Flying Flatbeds

For almost 10 years now, Barry Prentice has been talking about the potential of airships to revolutionize freight transport in Canada.

The professor of supply chain management at the I.H. Asper School of Business, Transport Institute, at the University of Manitoba, has spoken to transportation experts, supply chain leaders, entrepreneurs, the media, government bureaucrats, and elected officials. He’s spoken at conferences, at public meetings, in private offices, in hotel lobbies, and around water coolers.

The message is always the same: with a little vision, leadership, and investment, Canada could become a world exporter of airship technology — and reap huge economic benefits along the way.

He is a tireless promoter of a sixth mode of transportation — a supplementary mode to trucks, trains, boats, planes, and pipelines.

"In the space of two years we could be using airships. For the price of a couple of bridges, we could have an industry," he says, with all the passion of a preacher. Indeed, he has been called an "evangelist" on the subject. The insult — if that’s how it was meant — rolls off his back.

"I sincerely believe that Canada needs transport airships. We need them badly," he says. "It is very clear to me that natural resources is the future for Canada, as it has been our past. And most of those resources are 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."

Yet the few airships that are seen floating above this land — or any land, actually — are used for less ambitious purposes such as atmospheric testing, exploration, advertising, or simple tourism.

"No one, anywhere, is using airships for freight transport. And that’s a real shame," says Prentice, "because there are no technical barriers to building a 20-tonne freight airship. None. But just think of what it could do. And not just in Canada. We have a lot of remote space but so does Russia, so does the Amazon, so does the Congo, so does the Australian outback, so does Antarctica. There are lots of places where it can be used. If we develop an industry here, it won’t just be to serve the Canadian market, it can be an export market as well."

Prentice can envision a world where huge airships make their slow graceful way over the north pole delivering our natural resources to Europe, India, or China, picking up finished goods and bringing them back to Winnipeg, Chicago, and Atlanta before heading to Brazil or Columbia to pick up fruits and vegetables. All at the speed of a truck with a fraction of the operating cost and fuel. 

HIGH HOPES Prof. Barry Prentice
preaches the air advantage.

Ron Hochstetler, director of lighter-than-air programs at Virginia-based technology company SAIC, describes Prentice as "the most credible voice out there when it comes to cargo transport airships in a real world business situation."

Like Prentice, Hochstetler believes Canada is the first best place for transport airships to begin productive operations.

"I truly think Canada is going to be the shining light for airship transport development," he says. "You have the need and the financial wherewithal. You’re not a third-world country. You have a transparent legal system. You pay your bills. You don’t have guys running around with AK47s. You have $500 billion worth of minerals in the ground that you want to get out of the ground. And you don’t want to pollute the place or build expensive roads and railroads."

SAIC, which originally developed small unmanned aerial vehicles for military applications, saw a growing need for freight airships. Their engineers worked from plans of the largest non-rigid airships ever flown — the ZPG-3W built by Goodyear in the late 1950s for the U.S. navy — to create the pilot-optional SkyBus 1500, a heavy lifting airship designed to carry as much as 20 metric tonnes of freight cargo.

It would utilize existing logistics infrastructure like 20-ft and 40-ft containers so shippers don’t have to invest in new equipment.

"Our system is designed so that anything that has standardized shipping container attachment points can attach to the bottom of our airship gondola which we’ve designed to be like an upside-down flatbed truck," says Hochstetler.

"We’re trying to be very realistic in designing something that is not the Starship Enterprise in the sweet by-and-by. It’s something that can be operated and supported right now and actually make somebody a dollar or two."

SAIC is not the only company developing freight airships. Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) of Bedfordshire, England has developed an impressive flying machine built in part on lighter-than-air (LTA) technology.

Gordon Taylor, HAV’s Canadian-born director of sales and marketing, says four technologies combine to make a promising new freight vehicle. The LTA side involves helium which provides 60 percent of lift. Several connected cigar-shaped envelopes of helium actually form what is in effect a giant wing, to offer more lift as it moves forward. Four vectored engines can be angled to provide directional thrust and makes vertical lift-offs possible. And a hovercraft system, provides for smooth landings and can even be reversed to provide suction to the ground.

"It’s actually more akin to an aircraft than an airship," says Taylor. "And we’re looking at producing three different sizes with 20-tonne, 50-tonne, and 200-tonne payloads."

The vehicles would operate at a cruising speed of up to 100 knots — or about 160-km an hour — sucking up very little fuel.

"You don’t need roads, you don’t need infrastructure. You don’t need airports, you can land on lakes, water, snow," says Taylor. "It’s basically a new form of transportation. It doesn’t replace helicopters, it doesn’t replace airplanes, it doesn’t replace rail, it doesn’t replace ships, but it fits nicely into niche markets. It’s up to your imagination how you use it."

But as yet, despite the successes of SAIC and HAV, no freight airships are currently operating in the field. The market is still catching up to the vision.

We shouldn’t be this far behind, argues Prentice.

The airship model could have developed over the last 50 years and been a mature technology by now, he says, but they were ignored because there were already plenty of airplanes — an industry that was kick-started by World War II. Furthermore, fuel was cheap, nobody worried about the environment, and there was no perceived need to go where there were no roads or landing strips.

Technology company and U.S. defense contractor SAIC is
applying state-of-the-art technology to airship design.

But all that’s changing. Climate changes are making the ice roads less and less reliable, fuel costs are increasing, and international demand for our difficult-to-access natural resources is the one true certainty of the Canadian economy.

"We need transport where there are no roads. We have things to carry. We have goods to move," says Prentice.

So what’s the problem?

Banks are hesitant to fund airship ventures that aren’t secured by contracts. And potential users of airships don’t want to commit to the technology until they see it working. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation.

The capital investment for a hangar and the very first freight airship to be completely certified would be approximately $100 million.

"Without a hangar, you cannot build airships. They’re simply too big. They’re too exposed. It’s like a great monster sail. You cannot hold them down when the winds come, and we’ve seen this too many times to try it anymore," says Prentice. "In a situation like this, I think the government has a duty to invest a little to help get this industry off the ground. They have a duty to lead."

But he’s having a difficult time getting the administrative bureaucracy of government to take him seriously.

"Transport Canada has been particularly difficult to deal with. We’ve asked for a policy statement on airships for quite some time. The reason is because when we go to other ministries, the first thing they say is what does Transport Canada think?"

Transport Canada, however, does not think of airships as a transportation matter. The ministry thinks of it as an innovation. A technology in development.

THE GIGGLE FACTOR

"This is not a technology in development," Prentice says with exasperation. "It’s been around for 110 years, and airships have been flying continuously. You can see one anytime you want. You can ride in one. But Transport Canada’s view is that this is not a transportation technology? How absurd!"

He blames "the giggle factor" for a lack of political signals. Politicians don’t want to stand up and call for airships lest they be lampooned in the media.

"The bureaucrats look for political direction but the politicians have not stepped forward. They’ve closed their minds to this topic which is unfortunate because they’re not serving the national interest," he says.

Melanie Quesnel, a media relations advisor with Transport Canada, says there have been no requests yet to certify an airship for freight use, but the department would consider such a request on a case-by-case basis.

That’s not good enough, says Prentice.

"The public has a role in sharing the risk of new developments that are in the national interest. The government can be a catalyst to help the private sector get things started."

Companies in the natural resources field — oil and gas, minerals, and forestry — are universally interested in the potential of airships but they’re unwilling to spend the cash to develop the industry.

"They tell me they’re not ready to invest in aerospace. Their business is digging things out of the ground. But as soon as there’s an airship available, they’d use it," he says. "They’d like to use the technology, but they don’t want to develop it. It comes down to ‘whose baby is it.’ And this is where government could come in. Call it northern development."

He points out that the country is already spending millions to fly people and supplies into and out of the north.

"Look, maybe it isn’t airships. Maybe there’s a better idea. I tell people I’m willing to listen to their idea. What is it? And there’s silence," he says. "I don’t mind being called an evangelist. A bureaucrat’s career would come to an end over this; a politician would be ruined. So who’s left to push this? A university professor."

Hochstetler, of SAIC, says that although there have been very few airships that have ever operated in Canada, "if airships are perfect for any country, it is Canada."

He says the weather and geographic challenges facing shippers are not trivial. And airship technology is finally advancing enough to meet those challenges.

And Prentice believes when airships finally do come, they will bring a transportation revolution.

"Once this begins, it’s going to change a lot of things. It’s what is called a disruptive technology. Mining will change. Moving rocks and trees will change. Northern communities will change. Moving fruits and vegetables over the Amazon… carrying cargo over polar bear grounds… things we can’t even visualize yet will be possible. It’s exciting. And that’s what drives an ­academic like me crazy! You can see all this potential!"

The evangelist is in fine form.  

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