Keep your eye on the sky

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Friday, July 1, 2011

The Goodyear blimp circling above the football stadium on a crisp autumn afternoon probably does not bring to mind a revolution in worldwide cargo transport or the transformation of secret military surveillance. Well think again, because that future is almost here.

A new type of airship will soon be taking to the skies, although it bears little resemblance to that friendly blimp or the ill-fated Hindenberg other than its bubble-like appearance. Aviation companies here and abroad are on the brink of introducing a new generation of airships that feature low fuel consumption, low overhead, no infrastructure investment, and the potential to lift 40 tons of cargo.

Trucks, trains, freighters, and cargo planes do most of the heavy lifting right now, and, except for trucks, they are all more expensive to build than an airship at about $5 million. In addition, they require billions of dollars for infrastructure from highways to airports and landing strips, from train tracks to navigable harbors and docking facilities. The infrastructure in turn requires full-time maintenance and on-site work crews. In northern Canada, the once reliable and economical ice roads are now the victims of warming temperatures. Once serviceable for three months of heavy truck traffic, that number has shrunk to 30 days in many areas. Fuel costs have also skyrocketed and the future on that front looks bleak.

Airships, on the other hand, have managed to float above many of these earthbound problems. They are built with a tough skin over an aluminum skeleton, then filled with helium—a nonflammable, buoyant natural gas that lasts indefinitely. The buoyant nature of the airships allows them to lift off without added power, but requires motors at flying altitude for navigation and propulsion; top speed is about 80 mph. As an added bonus, sections of the ship’s exterior are covered in a thin film that collects energy from the sun, supplementing the power supply.

An airship can fly over thousands of miles of roadless land to deliver equipment and supplies to mining sites, construction projects, remote villages, and disaster sites. Largely unaffected by weather, changing seasons, or ground conditions, such as those created by natural disasters, experts predict that airships can operate 300 days a year.

Bruce Prentiss from the Transport Institute at the University of Manitoba has long been a proponent of airships. He reports that in addition to domestic uses, the military would like to send an airship the size of a football field aloft to enhance defense systems and intelligence gathering by hovering in the stratosphere— far above any restricted air space.

Keep an eye on the sky, because in just a few years you may be sitting in the bleachers one fall day when an airship the size of a football field floats by.

Linda is responsible for the PERC web sites, media relations, the national journalism conference, and the media fellows program. She is author of Forest Fires, part of a series of  environmental education books for high school students. She also wrote and produced Square One, a newsletter that introduced grassroots environmentalists to market...
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