High flying demand or bust?

  • Staff Reports
  • June 30, 2011
Experts weigh in on the airships sector

Call them blimps, dirigibles or zeppelins. Regardless of the verbiage, one thing’s for certain: Airships are a sky staple. With early models dating back to the late 1600s, these aircraft precede traditional planes by centuries.

However, their design and function have certainly evolved over the years. Whether utilized for marketing purposes or government intelligence, these devices have been heralded for their wide range of applications. One capacity, in particular, that has been garnering significant attention of late is freight transportation.

Enabling manufacturers and freight forwarders to transport cargo, such as humanitarian supplies, to hard-to-reach destinations, airships have been lauded as the wave of the future by some aviation experts. After all, they offer a trifecta of benefits: increased capacity, a reduced carbon footprint and the ability to land virtually anywhere.

But will the cargo airship market ever get completely off the ground? Will the industry experience another defeat on par with Germany’s CargoLifter failure? And will hybrid airships — which combine the elements of both lighter-than-air (LTA) and heavier-than-air (HTA) aircraft and offer an increased payload capacity — live up to their hype or go bust?

The results are in — and they’re mixed.

The voices of opposition

To say that the industry took a hit when cargo airship manufacturer CargoLifter announced insolvency in 2002 would be an understatement. A more accurate assertion? It was a complete setback. When CargoLifter came on the scene in the late ’90s, the company aspired to create a CL 160 airship capable of carrying 160 tonnes. But that goal never fully transpired.

Faced with a number of challenges, including limited funding and the destruction of an airship prototype, CargoLifter was forced to throw in the proverbial towel. Nevertheless, former company shareholders continue to invest in the LTA market, via the CL CargoLifter GmbH & Co. KG company. Still, to some in the aviation and logistics field, CargoLifter’s collapse serves as a cautionary tale.

Jose Holguin-Veras, PhD, a transportation-engineering expert at the Troy, N.Y.-based Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, fits into this category. Not only does he call cargo airships “costly and capacity strained,” he also questions their logistical merit. Explaining that transferring goods from one mode to another — truck to airship or vice versa — accounts for 12 percent to 20 percent of freight transportation costs, Holguin-Veras says airships can’t carry enough cargo to mitigate this expense.

“The only way for the mode to succeed is if you have low operating costs, and I don’t think airships are low,” he says. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t see this changing anytime soon. “I don’t think airship manufactures have a good hold on the freight market,” Holguin-Veras asserts. “Speed and direct cost per mile are what’s important. And a mode that is slow, like airships, could only compete it if has very high carrying capacity, like 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes, not 60 tonnes like many are [transporting].”

He’s especially anti-airship when it comes to moving low-value goods. After all, he maintains, airships just can’t compete with other transportation methods in this category. “Can you transport a low-value commodity like corn via an airship that will be competitive with trucks and seafreight?” Holguin-Veras asks. “I don’t think so.”

Then there’s the problem of perishables. Many industry experts argue that cargo airships are simply too slow to transport time-sensitive cargo, such as flowers and certain fruits. Traditional freighters and ships are a much better option, they assert.

Holguin-Veras agrees. To him, airship manufacturers should leave freight transportation to traditional aircraft and trucks and focus on tourism and other passenger-oriented transportation. Although he does acknowledge one advantage of cargo airships — carrying freight to remote destinations — even this isn’t enough for him to endorse the market. “Helicopters could transfer it, too,” he says. “I just don’t see the benefit of [cargo airships].”

Tapping into airships’ potential

Ron Hochstetler, director of LTA programs at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), couldn’t disagree more. Although he also points to the other uses for zeppelins, such as scientific research and sightseeing, Hochstetler says the heavy-lift transportation implications for airships are numerous. In fact, he maintains, “the cargo market offers the airship the highest profitability margins, has strong demand in many international regions, and appears to be a highly sustainable business.”

Hochstetler’s company got involved with the LTA market nearly nine years ago when it was tasked with restoring a U.S. Army-owned airship — the Skybus 30k — that had been out of commission for years. To ensure a successful renovation, SAIC charged top airship engineers with redesigning the ineffective or absent parts.

After receiving glowing remarks from its government-based client and obtaining the first Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Experimental Certificate issued for an unmanned airship, the company embarked on another project: designing the Skybus 8k. At 80,000 cubic feet, the Skybus 8k can reach an altitude of 10,000 feet and transport 500 pounds for 24 hours, Hochstetler says.

Several ideas were tossed around to deal with the fact that the FAA and air traffic control experts prohibit unmanned aircraft from flying in national airspace. In the end, SAIC decided to “obtain an FAA certified manned airship and convert it to incorporate an ‘optionally piloted’ configuration,” Hochstetler says. “We were fortunate in that an excellent manned airship came on the market at the right time.”

Hochstetler also worked with the now-insolvent CargoLifter to assess the market for cargo airships. “So I was well aware of the great potential and technical challenges that large cargo airships offered to many current transport problems, especially in remote regions,” Hochstetler says. “SAIC has also conducted a comprehensive study of the best technologies and prime market sectors for cargo airships and what design and performance elements offered the best balance for meeting both commercial and [U.S. Department of Defense] transport necessities.”

The general consensus among logistics experts? “The design needed to be ‘right-sized’ so it could carry an economically useful load, but not be so large that its very size magnified the engineering and construction challenges before us,” Hochstetler explains. Enter the Skybus 1500HL. Resolved to avoid “the problems that have prevented other companies from succeeding in building and operating large cargo airships,” Hochstetler says this airship features a capacity of 20 tonnes.

Although Hochstetler maintains that SAIC could have developed an airship with a higher payload — 40 to 50 tonnes — he questions the demand for it. “We knew that the last thing an aircraft operator wants to do is fly around with a partial load while still paying full hourly operating expenses,” he says. “We reasoned that there would be a greater likelihood for a 20-tonne ship to fly with a full load most of the time.”

An airship renaissance?

SAIC is not the only company advocating the use of airships for freight transportation. The market also got a big boost in March when Lockheed Martin announced that it was collaborating with Canada-based Aviation Capital Enterprises to develop a hybrid airship. Tasked by Aviation Capital to design and construct a fleet of airships that meet FAA regulations, Lockheed Martin is currently working on a 20-tonne-payload aircraft called SkyTug.

Unlike lighter-than-air variations, hybrid airships like SkyTug get their lift from helium and gravity. To Aviation Capital, they offer the benefit of needing virtually no fixed-ground infrastructure and being able to launch and land on tricky surfaces, such as water. And the disaster-relief implications for such an aircraft are apparent, the company’s executive chairman, Kirk Purdy, maintains.

Because hybrid airships don’t require a runway, heavy freight, such as medicine and other life-saving supplies, can be dispersed to remote destinations like the Amazon. What’s more, Purdy says, “they enable mining, oil and gas, and pipeline support missions along with humanitarian support flights that can’t be accomplished by any other cargo aircraft today.”

Plus, they’re one of the most environmentally friendly options available. Emitting far less greenhouse gas than traditional cargo planes, airships offer businesses a greener way to transport goods. And it’s the worldwide push for sustainability and environmental responsibility that has many aviation experts eyeing this market.

Brady Soule, co-founder of Helios Airships, stresses this point, explaining that airships offer manufacturers and freight forwarders a viable way to reduce their ecological footprint. “Imagine people saving the environment from millions of pounds of pollutants from trucks and ships every year,” Soule muses. He also envisions a future with less-crowded highways and a decreased dependency on fuel, thanks to fewer freight trucks.
Even Holguin-Veras can’t dispute this merit, although he’s quick to present a counter-argument. “Well, they may have a low carbon footprint, but if customers don’t want to use them, then it’s [irrelevant],” he says.

Soule disagrees wholeheartedly with Holguin-Veras’ assesment. Although he acknowledges that airships do have a few hurdles to overcome — namely developing efficient landing systems and dealing with helium loss — he calls these aircraft “the future of freight transportation.” He says his company was also careful to consider these issues when designing its flagship product, the C60 cargo airship, with a capacity of 60 tonnes. “Our last big issue was generally creating an airship that could handle the weight of all that freight,” Soule says. “There are still some issues to iron out, but I’m sure we can solve them in short order.”

Soule says utilizing a cargo airship is also fiscally sound. The C60 “can carry freight anywhere in the world for mere pennies per tonne-mile. [That’s] far better than what any other mode of transport or company can offer,” he asserts.

Purdy shares Soule’s optimism about the cargo airship market, although he continues to endorse traditional freight transportation. Instead of cargo airships replacing freighters and conventional ships, he sees them “augmenting” current methods. He also believes their unique design is advantageous to transporting freight.

“Hybrid aircraft operating characteristics are different from other aircraft, but the differences are not drawbacks; they are enablers,” Purdy says. “The ability to land on any relatively flat surface, for example, including on the water, enables large-scale cargo delivery to areas that can’t be reached today in a cost-effective way.”

Soule believes the possibilities for cargo airships are endless. In addition to saving companies a significant amount of money compared to traditional cargo planes, he calls airships “superior in every single way over the status quo.”

“Airships are a win-win for both sides,” Soule maintains. “It’s time the world saw this and started to see airships in another light — and we plan to lead the way.”

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