Monday, February 17, 2014

'Airshipping' - Perhaps the Logistics of Freight by Blimp aren't Just Hot Air

After 140 Years is a Niche Market Opening for the Airship Concept?
Shipping News Feature

RUSSIA – US – UK – WORLDWIDE – We have in the past dismissed the notion of reintroducing airships as a viable mode of transporting cargo as little more than hot air. The unveiling of the Aeroscraft, a 266 feet long and 110 feet wide lighter-than-air craft by the now Californian based Worldwide Aeros company simply shows that some maintain faith that the concept so enthusiastically pursued by Count Zeppelin still has a place in the modern age, at least in selected logistics situations, carrying suitable freight to and from certain inhospitable regions.

Count Ferdinand first postulated the idea of commercial (not to say military) use, one hundred and forty years ago and yet today very little has changed, airships, torn by high winds, remain uncontrollable beasts and with recent gales gusting up to 108 mph strafing Britain, it is hard to envisage a successful future for the helium filled bags without some radical improvements. The shortcomings of the craft, and the doubling of helium prices in the past few years, have not served to put off everybody however.

It may be that our previous cynicism might need some adjustment, in the mining industry particularly the requirement to take machinery weighing hundreds of tonnes by road can be a logistical nightmare, even when the destination is a comparatively civilised area. As resources become more depleted so the search and recovery of minerals and potential fuels stretches into wastelands never previously investigated, Siberia particularly springs to mind. Mining companies such as Norilsk Nickel have investigated the concept of 'airshipping' in depth before turning to air freight and even its own fleet of icebreakers, and Russia’s largest gold producer, Polyus, similarly rejected the idea.

One Polyus rival however has apparently invested in the future of lighter-than-air technology, Petropavlovsk Plc say they have funded investigations, and Aeros and British company Hybrid Air Vehicles have tested their own models with the UK based company says its Airlander craft will eventually be capable of carrying up to 200 tonnes with a maximum operational range of 2,600 miles when it is built.

The factor that may enable this design of craft to finally make a real impact in the commercial world is one of simple economics. Rather than any one party developing or purchasing an airship, current thinking sees those who have invested so much in developing working craft would then hire them out for specific contracts, as do heavy lift outfits such as Antonov Airlines with its ageing An-225 capable of carrying a 250 tonne payload.

Certainly logistics groups are showing an interest in clambering aboard the latest vehicles, earlier this month Bertling Logistics, like Cargolux before them, has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Aeros allowing the German headquartered freight forwarders to become a launch partner for Aeroscraft models in the future and act as sales agents for the Worldwide Aeros Group services.

The Aeroscraft ‘Dragon Dream’ (very ably explained in detail in this video by the now defunct 'Daily' in 2012) will eventually have an operational range of over 5,000 miles fully loaded with a similar payload limit to the Antonov. It has a ‘rigid’ shell whereas Hybrid Air seems to be concentrating more on the ‘blimp’ style craft with the Airlander 50 designed to have a 6 TEU, 50 tonne carrying capacity.

Modern airships have the ability to adjust buoyancy by taking in or venting air, therefore retaining precious helium, to lift 250 tonnes around 14 million cubic feet of the gas would be needed, but all the new craft still have to attain full airworthiness certification and it remains to be seen if enough investors are prepared to finance these innovative, and potentially profitable ventures, to see lighter-than-air craft become a regular feature in the supply chain. If that is the case regions such as the jungles of Africa and the more inhospitable parts of Canada and Alaska may one day witness the crossing of the giant, cigar shaped shadows symptomatic of this iconic, if often impractical, type of vehicle.

Harking back to our previous cynicism it should be noted that, despite a mountain of positive publicity, when FAA initial testing was undertaken last September on the half sized ‘Pelican’ Aeroscraft, high winds at the site prevented an ‘untethered’ test as the ship lifted off. The forces generated when a giant lighter than air vessel starts to be pushed around by a serious wind can only be imagined. Time will eventually tell if modern technology overcomes the forces of nature sufficiently to make ‘airshipping’ a viable concept.

Photo: Inside the Aeroscraft hangar.