February 2010

Getting there with hot air

Can blimps solve the North’s transport woes?

By G. Woodford

Airships could ease the logistical constraints of remote mining operations. 

As we move into increasingly remote areas searching for minerals and fuel, one question keeps cropping up: how do we get there? Roads are often not an option. Helicopters can only carry so much. Could airships be the answer?

“In the Canadian North there are rich mineral deposits, but there’s no way to get to them,” says Barry Prentice, president of ISO Polar, a not-for-profit airship think tank. Airships can take us there, he says.

They can reach the remotest areas in the harshest climates and do not require a runway; they can haul a payload of 40 tonnes over more than 300 kilometres; they can lift and transport an entire oil rig. And they’re environmentally friendly, too, capable of running on alternative fuels like hydrogen and methane.

At least, they are all these things in theory — no airships have actually been built yet.

But the dirigibles are coming. The U.S. military is hoping to have one ready in 18 months to provide continuous surveillance to prevent roadside bombs in Afghanistan. Calgary-based SkyHook International, working with Boeing, plans to build a prototype for commercial application by early 2014.

SkyHook’s craft, a helicopter-airship hybrid, will run on jet fuel and be able to haul 40 tonnes. By comparison, explains Linda Conti, SkyHook’s vice-president of administration, “the MI-26, the largest helicopter, can carry 18 tonnes.”

For anyone having flashbacks to the Hindenburg, the airship that famously burst into flames in 1937, Prentice offers reassurance. The ill-fated Hindenburg was built from canvas, silk, wood and cow intestines. The new airships will not only be vegetarian-friendly but, crucially, will also be filled with non-flammable helium, rather than highly flammable hydrogen.

The potential customers for airships are many — oil and gas, mining and construction companies, as well as the military. For the mining industry, says Prentice, the biggest advantage would be cutting time to market by saving the time (and money) of having to build roads to remote areas. On top of that, notes Conti, “the ice road season is short. With airships, mines would be accessible 24/7, 12 months of the year.”

No one is sure exactly how much the airships will cost once they are in production, but Prentice says an accepted projection is around $1 million per tonne of lift. So far, the Canadian government has declined to invest in the concept. However, its proponents hope that the U.S. military’s airship project will spur further development here and elsewhere.

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