Giant Airships Could Make Cargo Planes Obsolete

Monday, 13 November 2017 - 11:25AM
Science News
Monday, 13 November 2017 - 11:25AM
Giant Airships Could Make Cargo Planes Obsolete
Image credit: Hybrid Air Vehicles

As traditional planes become more expensive and more harmful to the environment, airships may be the future.

Despite their popularity in science fiction, airships have never really caught on. That's a shame—it's hard to deny the appeal from a pure aesthetics perspective of traveling through the air in a massive airship. (There's a reason this concept comes up so often in such a diverse subsection of sci-fi storytelling.)

While the future of hoverboards is looking rocky at best, one company is banking heavily on real-life airships becoming a common sight in the next few years. Engineering company Hybrid Air Vehicles has created the Airlander, an advanced form of the classic airship, that the company believes will become a preferred method of cargo transport over the next 10 years.

While fully accepting that the demand for such a craft isn't there just yet, HAV head of partnerships Chris Daniels insists that before long, the benefits of this hitherto unpopular transport will convince hauliers to think twice about airships.

According to Daniels:

Opening quote
"The big market and the ultimate goal is opening up the world through cargo and trade opportunities. But our feeling is that's a bit more of a long-term goal. That market will wait until there's a finalized product."
Closing quote


While airship technology has existed for a long time, it's not exactly been something that shipping companies have been interested in investing in up to this point. Traditionally, the big challenge for proponents of the airship has been convincing people that these things are actually safe—the Hindenburg casts a very long shadow.

That said, airship technology has come a long way in the past century, and it's likely to advance even faster over the coming few years.

The modern incarnation of the humble zeppelin boasts a lot of safety features that naturally weren't in existence the last time that humanity relied on these crafts en masse.



Where airships like the Airlander really triumph, though, is their ability to cross all forms of terrain effortlessly, without the need for a dedicated runway that would be required for a cargo plane.

This may make airships significantly more useful for reaching remote parts of the world that aren't currently as connected to the global community as they could be.

The University of Manitoba's Barry E. Prentice notes the relative ease with which an airship can get to its destination, when compared with other forms of transport:

Opening quote
"Roughly 70 percent of Canada's landmass has no roads or rail lines, so we have a huge area that's basically inaccessible except to small airplanes. We really do have a very large need for a better system of lifting bigger pieces and bigger sizes that you can't fit into an airplane door, into all kinds of places … A lot of places around the world are inaccessible."
Closing quote


This certainly does make the case for airships in remote parts of the world, but are these things ever going to catch on as a replacement for airplanes in more urban areas? Possibly.

After all, compared with planes, airships are significantly more environmentally friendly, and they're far more cost efficient.

Says Prentice:

Opening quote
"An airship doesn't burn very much fuel, maybe at the outside of a quarter of what an airplane would burn. On top of that, you can use an alternative fuel like natural gas or hydrogen."
Closing quote


This is going to be more of a concern as global economies begin to more heavily tax carbon emissions—airplanes are pretty terrible for the planet.



If airships take off as a means of cargo transport, it may not be long before they're used as people movers as well.

And if that happens, the days of passengers being tightly packed into cheap seats in a flying metal tin might come to an end. Airships have one distinct advantage over airplanes: legroom. That's the only sales pitch we need. 

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Giant Airships Could Make Cargo Planes Obsolete