The Golden Age of the Airship: Is It Really Behind Us?

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Airships inspire a certain level of awe by their sheer size, and by the way they can move. They also inspire fear for those that like to point out the Hindenburg, perhaps the most infamous airship of them all. Because they are so slow and potentially flimsy, many people have written off the airship as a method of transportation.

But is it perhaps too soon to make such an assumption? With soaring energy prices and the need to support remote regions for humanitarian aide, the airship becomes a more credible method of transportation, and here are the reasons why:

Cabin Space
An airship with roughly the same dimensions as a regular aircraft can carry a larger payload, both in cargo space and weight. Properly applied, and assuming you are not in a hurry to move your cargo or passengers (more on that in a bit), the airship becomes a very space-friendly solution. Imagine having a flight from one end of the country to the other. Instead of spending hours in cramped quarters, you could actually spend more time stretched out in comfort, even sleep in a real, full-sized bed in your own cabin! And you can still carry just as many people as on a plane. They will just be more comfortable.

Fuel Efficiency
Sure, the airship is slow, but it's fuel efficient. Most blimps currently use less fuel in an hours flight than most jets use to taxi to the runway. Of course, in a world where ecological considerations and green house gasses are a concern, imagine coating the envelope of an airship with solar panels, and using electric motors? Propulsion becomes even more environmentally sound. And, with solar power and efficient batteries, it's possible to never have to land to refuel, so long distance travel would be very possible.

Point to Point Shipping
Most airships have one thing in common: vertical take off and landing. That means that the airship can load up at, say, a factory, and then fly directly to the distribution center with a huge load. And, the shipping costs become roughly the same as maritime shipping. Shipping by boat is much cheaper per mile than shipping by road. Airships apply this same concept to the air, making inland shipping much more cost effective.

Remote Access
Canada is currently looking to airships to supply their remote locations in the Northwest Territories. Currently they are using ice roads over frozen lakes, but with the ice melting faster each year, they need another way to ship. Airships will allow them to ship the same materials at all times of the year, regardless of the state of the ice below them.

Airships can also reach remote areas in underdeveloped nations during disasters, or in areas where huge disasters completely destroy all other infrastructure (including traditional airports). Cheaper to fly than Helicopters, and able to carry larger payloads, airships can bring waves of humanitarian aide in less time than it would take to rebuild an airport, or try to rebuild roads, bridges, etc. to allow ground shipping in an area. They can land in any open field (or convention center roof top), drop their payload, and continue back to get more materials.

Why am I preaching the benefits of airships? Partly because I think they are just cool, partly because I love the idea of silently flying through the air in comfort. But also because several companies are currently working on airship solutions for the Military to deploy men, supplies, and equipment, and need the flexibility and lift power of the airship. This means that commercial and even private airship transportation could soon be within reach.

The one company that I am really interested in is Worldwide Aeros Corp, and their concept Aeroscraft ML866. It's really a hybrid craft, and not a true airship, because it's not fully lighter than air. Instead it has VTOL capabilities to a point, but requires aerodynamic lift to achieve higher altitudes. For general information, check out this PDF of their entry in the 2008 pocket guide to Business Aircraft.

Two other companies out there developing solutions are Lockheed-Martin and their P-791 hybrid airship, and the SkyCat of Hybrid Air Vehicles. Both have similar designs (which actually prompted a legal battle), and both are looking to jump into the Airship market.

There are many other airship companies out there, and each are trying to take advantage of the need for economically and environmentally friendly shipping, even if it is slower than jets over long distances.