Dr. Barry Prentice dreams big.
The professor of Supply Chain Management at the University of Manitoba has spent over two decades championing the return of airships to our skies.
His first exposure to airships was seeing them in old black and white newsreels at movie theatres when he was a kid.
“To me, they were like dinosaurs,” says Dr. Prentice. “They were massive machines, they’re incredible, and they’re all gone.”
In 2011 he founded Buoyant Airships Systems International (BASI). It aims to increase the standard of living and economic development in remote locations around the world using airships as a cargo delivery vehicle.
More specifically, Dr. Prentice believes airships are the only solution to service remote communities in Northern Manitoba once climate change renders ice roads unreliable.
What is an airship?
The most recognizable airship today is the blue and yellow Goodyear Blimp –– hovering above a sports stadium. Blimps are basically a cockpit attached to a giant bag inflated with lifting gas like helium (or before it fell out of favour, hydrogen). The bag of gas is taut or saggy depending on the temperature and volume of its contents. The airship is most agile and speedy when the gas bag is taut. Blimps are non-rigid airships.
Dr. Prentice says it would take a puncture the size of a car to bring down a blimp. But even then, it would come down slowly.
“The guys with the Goodyear blimps, they don’t like to advertise this,” says Dr. Prentice. “But they hate crossing Texas. They fly from California to Florida, often in the wintertime and people [in Texas] decide it’s okay to take pot shots at them.”
The infamous German airship Hindenburg, that erupted in flames in 1937, was a rigid airship. Picture your lungs, contained within a ribcage, covered with skin. Rigid airships consist of several enormous bags of lifting gas, surrounded by a stiff latticework (in the past, often made of aluminum), coated with a protective sheathing.
Thanks to its skeleton, a rigid airship maintains its shape regardless of the temperature of the lifting gas inside of the gas cells. So, unlike a Blimp (one giant bag of gas), if the gas cells of a rigid airship become saggy, the aircraft’s manoeuvrability and speed is less impeded. Since these vessels contain several bags of lifting gas, if one bag springs a leak, remaining cells keep the aircraft aloft. Crafts with rigid frames can be built larger than their non-rigid cousins. Thus, rigid airships can lift more.
The glory days of rigid airships occurred over 80 years ago. Today, no rigid airships grace the skies.
Airships emit far fewer carbon emissions than airplanes because they are lighter than air and do not consume fuel to create or maintain lift.
With the ability to lift heavy loads and land and takeoff vertically, airships may prove the ideal service vehicle for remote communities with no road access or runway infrastructure.
Two options exist for a lifting gas: helium and hydrogen. Today’s blimps use helium.
Helium doesn’t have the lifting power of hydrogen, but it’s non-flammable. Unfortunately, helium is a finite resource and once the Earth’s supply is mined, it will take millions of years for stocks to regenerate. A 2017 paper from the ACS Green Chemistry Institute estimates a helium shortage may occur within the next 25 to 50 years.
This is bad news for industry and society at large. Helium is used in welding, commercial diving, particle accelerators, cellphone chips and MRI machines. Currently, no technology exists to manufacture helium or harvest it from the atmosphere.
A major long-term obstacle for the burgeoning airship industry is convincing governing bodies hydrogen can be safely managed with new technologies.
Canada Air Regulation 541.7 states, “Hydrogen is not an acceptable lifting gas for use in airships.”
Though the explosion of the German airship Hindenburg in 1937 is often credited as the reason hydrogen fell out of favour as a lifting gas, it was banned in the United States over a decade earlier in 1922.
In a 2020 opinion piece for the Financial Post, Dr. Prentice writes:
“In 1922, officials from the U.S. Bureau of Mines, trying to protect a newly established helium refinery, staged a fraudulent demonstration in Washington. They showed that a helium-filled toy balloon will not ignite. Pure hydrogen will not burn either, but if the gas is contaminated by more than 25 per cent air, it can. Their contaminated hydrogen balloon created a bang that rattled the windows of Congress. Based on nothing more, U.S. politicians banned hydrogen’s use in airships.”
For now, any airship will have to use helium as a lifting gas. If modern helium-filled airships prove effective, perhaps lawmakers will be more inclined to allow for experimentation with hydrogen.
While the Hindenburg disaster is tragic (36 of the 97 people on board were killed), aerospace and materials technology has advanced tremendously over the past eight decades.
Dr. Prentice proposes a rigid airship with gas cells able to accommodate helium or –– if ever cleared for use again –– hydrogen.
There are differing theories as to why the German airship Hindenburg exploded. Eye-witness accounts suggest a thunderstorm was a factor. This may have generated static energy on the surface of the airship. Before landing, the Hindenburg was observed releasing water from its ballast tanks. Was this done in attempt to right the craft due to a hydrogen leak? Did static electricity ignite expelled hydrogen?
In 1996, NASA scientist Addison Bain theorized flammable paint on the Hindenburg’s skin was the combustion source.
Whatever the cause of the fire, the Hindenburg disaster is often believed to be the reason for the end of passenger airship travel.
Dr. Prentice says the true death-knell for airship travel came with the advancement of jet engine technology. Once the jet age gained speed, airships couldn’t keep up. A transatlantic crossing on the Hindenburg took two and a half days.
Dr. Prentice’s childhood interest in airships returned during university. At this time, he was contemplating the best method to ship fruits and vegetables from southern climates to Canada.
Requiring no runways, airships can load produce at the farm where it’s grown. Produce no longer has to be packed and trucked across lengthy ground transportation routes to dockyards or airports able to accommodate large cargo planes.
Moving slower than airplanes (the Hindenburg’s top speed was 130 kilometres per hour), airships don’t vibrate like other modes of transportation. This makes them ideal for hauling delicate items like produce.
“There’s no reason to send freight at 800 kilometres per hour because freight doesn’t complain,” says Dr. Prentice.
After oil prices skyrocketed in the 1970s, industry began looking for more fuel-efficient technologies. Dr. Prentice says there was some talk of an airship renaissance until oil prices fell in the 1980s.
Oil is abundant today, but attitudes toward unabated global carbon emissions have shifted. According to the Environment and Energy Study Institute (EESI), the aviation industry is responsible for 2.1 per cent of all global carbon emissions.
“While this may seem like a relatively small amount, consider that if global commercial aviation were a country in the national CO2 emissions standings, the industry would rank number six in the world between Japan and Germany,” says an EESI report.
With an emerging market for lower carbon-emitting aviation technologies, airships are now getting a second look. In recent years, projects have sprouted up in the U.S, U.K, Russia and France. Even Google founder Sergey Brin is building an airship.
Every winter, the Manitoba government constructs a 2,400-kilometre network of winter roads to service over 30,000 people spread across 22 communities. The ice road season typically runs from mid-January to March. During this time, about 2,500 semi-truck loads traverse the ice road network.
Ice roads serve two major functions. They allow for the transport of people and cargo to and from southern cities and towns. They also allow for travel between remote communities.
In a 2021 news release, Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said the Manitoba government is investing $9 million toward the province’s winter road system.
But what happens when warming temperatures make ice roads impassable?
“Ultimately, in Canada, we have to do something. Especially with climate change,” says Dr. Prentice. “We cannot ignore this problem and pretend everything will be okay.”
In an email, Minister Schuler says, “the length of time of any winter roads season is not solely dependent on climate.” He lists variables including, “contractor performance” and “temperature vs snowfall.” The Manitoba Government expects to maintain a six-week winter road season.
While they’re commonly referred to as ice roads, it’s actually a little misleading. These roads cut across all types of terrain, aside from frozen lakes. The geography is a rugged tangle of lakes, rivers, swamps, muskeg, forests and granite outcrops. Building permanent roads in this region is costly.
A 2019 article in the Winnipeg Sun says it costs $3 million per kilometre to build a single-lane gravel road in the Canadian Shield. Dr. Marolo Alfaro, Associate Head of the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Manitoba, estimates the costs of building an all-season road to Churchill to be $2 million per kilometre.
“The previous government, the NDP government, they wanted to build roads. And so, they spent,” says Prentice. “They had a project that was going to be about $2.5 billion to build about 830 kilometres of roads. They managed to spend about $800 million, and actually built only about 90 kilometres of roads.”
“Studies have shown that constructing all-weather roads would be a monumental task and take decades to achieve,” says Minister Schuler in an email. The Manitoba Government is focused on, “improving and adjusting the winter roads network.”
Wendy Ross comes from Norway House and Cross Lake –– two communities with all-season roads. She has a Masters of Arts in Native Studies and formerly coordinated the NSERC Create H2O water and sanitation security program with the University of Manitoba. Now with the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources (CIER), Ross’s work brings her to the Island Lake region where communities rely on ice roads.
“The more climate change exacerbates, [the more] First Nations are impacted greatly,” she says.
She coordinates an automobile “back haul” project. Ross says communities have the resources to do some repairs but what can’t be fixed goes to landfill. The program trains youth to safely depollute wrecked vehicles (removing harmful substances and components like oil, freon and batteries) before the cars are crushed and sent south on winter roads for scrap. The back haul project faces challenges due to the shortened winter road season.
“Time is of the essence with winter roads”, says Ross. “As soon as the province gives the okay the winter roads are open, that’s when the mad dash to get things in and out of the community is a priority.”
Climate change also presents challenges for land-users in Northern communities.
“The knowledge they acquired is not accurate anymore,” says Ross. “Not being able to use time-honoured knowledge to predict is problematic.”
Lake ice used to freeze like glass before the snow fell. Now, there’s a weather cycle of snowfall mixed with periods of freezing and thawing. This creates an ice surface fluctuating between rough and slushy.
Ross says 20 years ago, the construction of an all-season road was frowned on but is now being considered. While all-season roads can open economic opportunities like tourism, they can also bring problems like unwanted hunters, and hard drugs.
“Having no road is protection,” says Ross. “Resource development companies are sniffing up there. Their eyes are green, they go ‘cha-ching.’”
Ross says, leadership in Northern communities is, “kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place.” All-season roads can bring jobs and development but they also lead to participating in “land destruction,” and create an “easier way to take.”
“Climate change is forcing people to have these hard thoughts and the pandemic is making people think about the way we travel and do business,” says Ross.
Ross says for nearly a decade during Stephen Harper’s government, there was little interest in funding environmental organizations and, “CIER almost died.”
“So, there is an urgency in the work I get to do,” says Ross. “Incorporating Western ways of looking at the world, using satellites [to scan ice roads] and using our time-honoured traditions is a pretty exciting thing.”
The BASI plan
While ice roads and semi-trucks are necessary to ship bulky and heavy items to Northern communities, airplanes also play a vital link in the supply chain.
Airplanes service communities year-round but they have limitations. The main problem with airplanes – aside from the tremendous amount of fuel they burn – is they can only be loaded with what can fit through their doors.
Oversize items either have to be disassembled or left to be hauled up north on the winter roads. Not limited by the dimensions of their cargo hold, oversized items like prefabricated houses or large construction equipment can be slung on the outside of an airship.
Runways in many remote communities are not built to accommodate huge airplanes capable of heavy lifts. The largest airplanes Perimeter Aviation and Calm Air (two airlines servicing northern Manitoban communities) fly are Dash 8-300s and ATR 72s. A Dash 8-300 carries about 6.3 tons of payload, an ATR 72, about 6.5 tons of cargo.
Dr. Prentice’s team at BASI proposes manufacturing rigid airships capable of carrying 30 tons – about four and a half African elephants. These mammoth crafts measure 560 feet long – around the length of 16 school buses parked end to end – with a diameter of 80 feet.
BASI’s modelling predicts 22 remote communities would keep three cargo-ferrying airships busy year-round. One-quarter of deliveries would be fuel, one quarter building supplies, another quarter food, and the last quarter anything from furniture to pickup trucks.
Though the primary purpose of the airships would be to haul cargo, they could also carry passengers to southern destinations or between northern communities.
Airships could also make way for new mining and industrial projects in remote places with no road access.
“Today the North is built on floatplanes. You can’t build a damn economy on floatplanes. So, the airship would be for the North, what the railway has been to Western Canada,” says Prentice.
Airships would not spell the end of the trucking industry in the North. Instead, Prentice envisions a distribution network combining ground and air transport. Using Manitoba’s existing year-round road system, semi-trucks haul cargo to a central northern depot. Airships carry freight on the last leg of its journey.
Why Airships now?
Now that the link between carbon emissions and climate change is widely accepted, airship technology is being revisited, especially for shipping freight.
Prentice says technological advances will make rigid airships far safer than they were 80 years ago.
Radar and weather forecasting technologies will help future airships avoid storms and lightning.
Modern aircraft now have built-in safeguards to ward off the buildup of static electricity.
Prentice says many airship crashes were thought to be caused by stress-related damage to the aircraft. Non-destructive testing and strain gauges help aviation designers and engineers better measure the strength and reliability of aircraft frames and components.
BARTs and ballast
While airships have the ability to land on ground or water with little to no infrastructure, Prentice and his team at BASI take a more safety-oriented approach.
They call their airship docking system a Buoyant Aircraft Rotating Terminal (BART). Essentially a massive turntable, a BART resembles a scaled-up version of a locomotive roundhouse. Airships are massive, have tremendous surface area, and, when grounded, cannot rest perpendicular to strong wind. The BART allows ground crew to rotate the nose of the docked airship windward.
The BART comes equipped with refuelling gear, forklifts to unload cargo, and water tanks to replenish the aircraft’s ballast.
Airships have to maintain an equilibrium of weight at all times. If the craft is too light, it will rise uncontrollably into the heavens. If the craft is too heavy, it won’t leave the ground. Thus, when cargo is being unloaded, an equal weight of water ballast needs to be pumped on board. When cargo is being loaded, ballast needs to be discharged.
BASI’s proposed airship can lift 30 tons. So, if the airship lands and drops off 30 tons of cargo, 30 tons of water gets pumped into the ballast tanks. Thirty tons sounds voluminous, but one ton of water is around one cubic metre, about the size of a kitchen stove. This amount of water can easily be carried by a tanker truck.
Prentice estimates each BART would cost around $2 million to build.
He estimates the price tag of BASI’s grand plan – including the design and manufacturing of the airships – to be around $1 billion.
With various airship projects underway around the world, the one venture getting substantial government investment and support at home is Flying Whales in France.
Launched in 2012, Flying Whales receives funding from the French government and investment from the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) a state-owned conglomerate.
“China came to us because they need this solution. They want this solution to develop some parts of the country,” says Romain Schalck, Communications Manager at Flying Whales in France.
The Quebec government came on board in 2019 with a $30 million investment.
Flying Whales predicts their first airship will be ready for test flights in 2023, with commercial operation in France beginning in 2025.
They plan to produce 162 airships in the first ten years of production. Manufacturing will occur in France, China, and Quebec. Their business plan estimates a global market for 800 airships.
The craft they propose to build is a 150 metre long, 50-metre-wide rigid airship with the ability to lift 60 tons. A 60-ton payload is almost as much as two semi trucks can haul.
Their airship uses helium as a lifting gas and an electric, hydrogen fuel cell propulsion system. Schalck says Flying Whales has a healthy supply of helium. One of their investors is gas company Air Liquide, headquartered in France.
“[Helium] is not a short-term problem. It’s not a mid-term problem,” says Schalck.
Flying Whales’ first client is France’s forestry sector. Much of their lumber industry operates in mountainous regions. Building roads to cut blocks is expensive and damages the ecosystem.
“We are developing a solution that doesn’t [currently] exist,” says Schalck.
Flying Whales proposes to load felled trees onto their airships while airborne. Hovering above the cut block, their airship lowers cables to the ground. As lumber is winched skyward into the cargo hold, the airship maintains its weight equilibrium by shedding water ballast in the form of rain droplets.
Reel Coh Inc. (based in Sainte-Thérèse, Quebec) is designing the winch and cable system.
“We knew that receiving some money from China could be tricky,” says Schalck. “It’s nonsense to say that China is going to steal the data.”
Flying Whales gets a rough ride from the Quebec press about their business involvement with China.
“So far, the large majority of articles on Flying Whales in Canada, mainly in Quebec, are punching us every time they can,” says Schalck. “We never said China is going to be involved in what happens in Quebec”.
Schalck says they’ve taken precautions to protect the project. He also says a strategic industrial venture of this scale is monitored by the French Intelligence service.
“Honestly, it is so complex to develop this concept and solution that you wouldn’t like to compete. You have to team up,” says Schalck.
A team of engineers from China worked at the Flying Whales offices in France until the pandemic sent them home.
Meanwhile, back in Manitoba, Dr. Prentice gets no satisfactory reply from the provincial government.
“But you know, you’ve got Brian Penny Pincher, and he’s not very imaginative,” says Dr. Prentice of Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister.
Prentice says he briefly met Pallister at the legislative building before he was first elected Premier. Pallister told him they’d talk after the election.
“Well, I’ve written them [Pallister] three times. Every time I get pushed off to a Minister of Transportation or somebody else, he won’t discuss the idea”, says Dr. Prentice.
Manitoba Infrastructure says they are open to learning about new technologies to make Northern supply chains more efficient. Instead of building all-weather roads, “the department was exploring the use of industrial matting [over muskeg],” says Schuler.
Dr. Prentice sees airships as a tremendous opportunity for the province. He says airship manufacturing will create hundreds of high-paying aerospace jobs, living standards in Northern communities will improve, and resource development will flourish.
“The Golden Boy is pointing North. And for 100 years we’ve never really been able to really develop the North. And the fundamental problem is transportation,” says Prentice.
Prentice says in 20 years of dreaming big, he’s yet to see a better answer to shipping cargo North. “Now until someone comes up with a better solution, we actually have the only solution.”
Will airships one day be used to service remote communities or will less glamourous methods like all-season roads prove more feasible? If climate change turns ice roads to slush, will new transport solutions to Northern communities be defined and welcomed by the people they’re meant to serve?