WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Today’s pace of life is hectic so airships provide both a respite as well as a way to lift massive volumes of cargo cheaply.
Airships are coming back after the company Flying Whales announced that they’re designing helium airships “to access the inaccessible.” After the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, the era of the airship was deemed well and truly over but the French company “is determined to explore the full potential of the airship” with the launch of its first craft slated for 2024.
The project was initially launched in 2012 after a series of discussions with the Office National des Forêts (ONF – French National Forestry Office), which thought an airship would be particularly effective in targeting hard-to-access natural resources in areas such as the Alps, Corsica, and French Guiana.
And they aren’t alone in their quest to bring back the airship age – elsewhere, in the UK, Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) recently announced it’s developing the Airlander airship for both cargo and sightseeing purposes which they say will be able to hold up to 40 people for a banquet, or 16 passengers for an overnight stay in private suites as the airship quietly cruises over the North Pole. But, as of now, the price of such trips are confidential but HAV suggest that the price tag is closer to that of a helicopter than a plane.
Flying Whale’s LCA60T airship will be able to transport up to 60 metric tons of goods at altitudes of close to 3,000 metres, and believe that airships could soon be a realistic commercial solution for countries with such vast expanses of territory.
Romain Schalck, market manager at Flying Whales told Air Liquide: “Airships could be used to collect tree trunks without impacting the ground by hovering above the site and loading and unloading cargo using cables.”
In addition to France, Canada, and China, through its state-owned company Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), have also shown interest by investing in the project and the company’s worked hard to ensure that the components they use and their design is as environmentally friendly as possible, such as its floating capabilities powered by helium, its hybrid-electric propulsion system, and the lack of needing extra infrastructure during take-offs and landings.
Naturally, since the airship uses helium to hover, the LCA60T has a low fuel consumption compared to traditional aircraft. The hybrid electric propulsion system that powers the airship also gives Flying Whales the opportunity to pivot to full electric propulsion in the future, further decreasing the airship’s carbon footprint.
“We decided to equip the first airship with hybrid propulsion first because we think today, we are in a world in which we cannot create new industrial tools without taking into account the protection of the environment,” Schalck said.
“A hybrid electric propulsion is not the perfect saver for the environment, but it’s a good first step.” However, there is an issue with Flying Whales ambitious plan – ironically the world is almost out of helium.
In recent years, helium prices have skyrocketed as supply has dwindled, says Foreign Policy. Far from just being used in party balloons and blimps, the gas is necessary for the world’s first portable MRI scanners, for example, and rocket engines. Stockpiles of helium often escape, and are wasted, during other extractive projects.
While there have been shortages before, helium is a non-renewable resource and can take an enormously long time to generate. Estimates suggest the Earth’s supply could be gone this century. So, for blimps to be a sustainable form of air travel, another method of levitation needs to be found, and no, hydrogen is flammable so it’s not an option …