Whenever someone engages Stephen Newton in a discussion about airships, the conversation takes an inevitable turn.
“I get the Hindenburg question all the time,” chuckled Newton, director of business development for Quebec-based Discovery Air Innovations (DAI). “What I get is, 'Are we going to have these big flaming balls of stuff flying around?'”
He's referring, of course, to the 1937 Hindenburg disaster in which the German-built airship crashed into its landing base in New Jersey, killing 35 people and effectively halting airship travel as a viable method of passenger transport.
But decades later, companies like DAI, a private air transport company, are revisiting airship technology as an efficient, cost-effective mode of transport for everything from tourism to resource exploration to delivering supplies to remote Northern communities.
“There is some NIMBYism,” Newton said. “But once people realize how environmentally friendly they are and what an efficient means of transportation they are, and how they're going to change people's lives, it completely changes the end picture.”
The new generation of dirigibles is nothing like its predecessors. Shaped like giant, inflatable plane wings, hybrid air vehicles (HAV) are heavier than air, so once resting on the ground, they don't need to be tied down to prevent them floating away, eliminating the need for ground support.
The HAV, which measures 119 metres (390 feet) by 57 metres (160 feet) by 35 metres (120 feet), can lift 50 tonnes and carry the cargo 5,000 km, staying airborne for up to 10 days. It's limited to flying 85 knots (150 km/hour), and most flights will be below 3,000 feet to avoid strong winds, but with a hovercraft-type landing system, the HAV can land on everything from snow to muskeg to ice without need of a runway.
Whereas the Hindenburg-style airships of the 20th century got their buoyancy from hydrogen, the new ships are comprised of a 5 mm-thick, multi-layered fabric filled with helium, an inert gas that displaces oxygen and has fire-extinguishing capabilities, Newton noted. Propulsion comes from four 2,400-horsepower gas turbine engines.
“The ideas that people have come up with to use it and do things with it are absolutely amazing,” said Newton, a 28-year veteran of the Canadian Forces who formerly piloted Sea King helicopters. “It's really encouraging because it shows that the innovation mode is out there and alive, and people are thinking about ways to do stuff smarter.”
Top of mind is resource exploration, which can run mining companies billions of dollars in infrastructure costs. Smaller plays could become economically viable, because staff and supplies could be flown in on an airship, and the resource itself could be concentrated on site and flown out, Newton suggested.
HAVs have also been suggested as a feasible, year-round method of getting much-needed supplies into remote northern and First Nations communities. Newton said preliminary DAI numbers counted 28 communities in Northern Ontario with seasonal access whose basic needs—heating fuel, groceries, medical attention—could be met by one 50-tonne HAV, bringing down the cost of those amenities considerably.
Newton has even been approached by those interested in the possibilities for using HAVs in tourism. The 17,000-square-foot cargo bay could easily be transformed into cabins, a dining area and a viewing platform for multi-day tours. Newton envisions tourists taking part in whale-watching tours while hovering 40 feet above the ocean, or trips around the Arctic and into the Northwest Passage.
“Eco-tourism wise, when you read all the accounts of the early users of airships in the Arctic, they found it a superb observation platform,” Newton said. “It's very relaxing, there's no noise, no vibration and it's a nice stable flight. It's not pressurized so your ears aren't constantly plugging, you've got lots of viewing capability and you can have a dining car.”
Modern-day airship technology has been researched for decades, particularly by the U.S. Army, which has already tested prototypes of a cousin of the HAV, the long-endurance, multi-intelligence vehicle (LEMV), which has been developed for surveillance purposes.
The research and development done by the army means the cost of development for private companies like DAI is brought down considerably, bringing commercial production closer to reality, Newton said.
Getting the technology into commercial production is still a few years off, but Newton said DAI wants to have its first prototype flying and ready for certification and testing by late 2013 or early 2014, with the first ship going into production by 2015.
Before DAI gets to that point, the company must first address some challenges. Testing must be completed to see how the HAV will operate in cold, Canadian climates. Newton doesn't foresee a problem, however, since the ships are designed to operate in a variable of minus 55 to plus 55 degrees Celsius.
There will also have to be some regulatory changes through Transport Canada, such as a training certification process, since there are only currently three airship captains in Canada. But that dialogue has already been started, Newton said, to prepare for the coming changes.
When the changes do come, it's going to put an entirely different spin on transportation in this country, he added.
“It is such a game changer,” he said. “It is not an incremental step in the transportation infrastructure. It is a radical alteration in the way that we think of doing business.”