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By Virginia Heffernan

Imagine waving to your kids from the viewing deck of an airship as it cruises north to your work camp.

That vision just took a step closer to reality. In March, UK-based Straightline Aviation signed a letter of intent with Lockheed Martin to buy a dozen airships for US$480m. And this summer, another company called Hybrid Air Vehicles will fly its Airlander 10 airship over southern England for the first time.

Both companies consider remote oil & gas and mining camps a key market for their strange aircraft. 

The airships combine the aerodynamic lift of a plane, the buoyancy of a zeppelin and the manoeuvrability of a helicopter. They can land and take off from ground, water or ice without the need of an airstrip. And they burn much less fuel than conventional aircraft.

To get a better sense of how hybrid airships would operate to and from FIFO camps, I consulted Chris Daniels, head of partnerships and communications for Hybrid Air Vehicles...

Q: There has been a lot of speculation about how airships will become a means of transporting both cargo and personnel to remote camps. How do you view the potential?

A: We see the market as being for passengers and cargo. We will mainly be operating in remote areas, so combining a workforce with payload is likely to be the right idea.

We will produce a passenger-only variant of our Airlander 10 that will carry around 60 passengers in 2018. The ultimate goal is to build and assemble the Airlander 50, which will carry 50-plus tonnes. This is the sweet spot for cargo and will fit 6x20-foot ISO containers together with 48 passengers.

We are still a few years away from realization, and in some ways the Airlander 10 is a developmental step to get us to the Airlander 50.

Q: Describe the Airlander passenger experience from boarding to landing and how it differs from plane travel.

A: We think it will be incredible! Boarding is likely to be from a field or from water, so there would be a smart departure lounge rather like a First Class lounge. After a short walk to the Airlander you would step aboard into a world of luxury, with reclining seats, viewing decks, a bar and dining tables. Floor to ceiling windows would allow a view unlike anything you have experienced onboard an aircraft, and we would have small windows that open, to allow fresh air into the cabin. There is none of the recycled, pressurized air of jet aircraft, so no groggy feeling post-flight. We would normally cruise at around 2000 to 5000 feet – that’s just above the height of a hill. There will be virtually no noise and no vibrations. It should be the smoothest, quietest ride of anyone’s life.

Q: Airships are slow compared to airplanes. Is it feasible to transport workers from, say, Edmonton Alberta to the diamond mines in the Northwest Territories, a distance of more than 1,000km?

A: The Airlander 10 can fly at 148km per hour and the Airlander 50’s maximum speed is 195km per hour. It really depends on the cost of the worker versus the cost of the transport. That is a commercial decision for the mine operator – whether to use more expensive but quicker transport or be economic with a five-hour trip for the workers.

Q: What advantages do airships offer over roads and planes for travel to the Canadian north?

A: If governments have spent billions on roads, railway tracks and airports, then we have limited competitive advantage. But as soon as we’re away from this infrastructure, we come into our own in terms of both cost and capability. We can get a lot of payload to pretty much anywhere, irrespective of the environment. This will open up stranded assets, such as valuable commodities that are currently not cost-effective to mine when the cost of the infrastructure to transport the equipment in and the ore out is factored in. Also, ice roads are having a shorter season each year, so there needs to be a replacement.

Q: How do upfront and operating costs differ from helicopters and planes?

A: For an Airlander 10, the upfront cost is around US$40 million. The operating and fuel costs are a fraction of helicopters and planes. We typically come out somewhere between 20 and 40 per cent of the cost of the next best thing, either on a tonne/kilometre basis or a fuel burn basis. In some scenarios we can operate at 10 per cent of the cost, a remarkable and game-changing difference.

Q: Does extreme cold affect buoyancy or speed?

A: The colder the air, the denser it is and therefore the more buoyant we are. The majority of our lift is buoyant and, because we go at relatively slow speeds, our performance is better in the denser air of lower altitudes and colder temperatures. We are regulated to operate in conditions as cold as -54 degrees C, so we should be fine in the Canadian Arctic.

For another perspective on airship potential, from Straightline CEO Mike Kendrick, please click here


More gems from Virginia:

Virginia Heffernan is a former exploration geologist who met her Welsh husband when they were both working on a gold project in Namibia. They live in Toronto with their teenage son. Virginia mostly stays put these days (she's now a freelance writer and member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada), but Roger continues on his global quest for the next big ore deposit. To check out Virginia's work, visit www.geopen.com.