Can airships provide the future of green travel?
ZEPPELINS and dirigible airships are with us again after 80 years out of favour – faster and hopefully much safer than in the interwar era – promising ultra-low carbon air transport.
It may not be long before we can start eating air-flown vegetables from Peru or blueberries from Kenya without feeling pangs of guilt. Fresh food may reach us in cargo Hindenburgs without the CO2 footprint of jet freight.
If all goes well, we will be able to hop virtuously from Liverpool to Belfast in point-to-point travel, or Stockholm to Helsinki, almost in the time it takes for a regular flight.
We can hope to lift off quietly from a field close to London in the early evening, retreat to a couchette after dinner, and wake up in Barcelona, Rome, or Val d’Isere.
As it happens, Britain is a throbbing centre of the airship revival, going head to head with France for global leadership. It could arguably capture part of the $120bn air freight market and displace a slice of the vastly greater truck haulage business in congested zones or regions with poor infrastructure.
Hybrid Air Vehicles, in Bedford, has already completed seven flights of its Airlander 10 prototype, after some mishaps along the way and an accident after a mooring line became caught on a power cable. It is an exotic doublehumped dolphin made of carbon fibre composites and lifted by helium.
The Airlander 10 carries ten tons of freight or up to 90 passengers. It can take off and land almost anywhere that is flattish with a 600-metre expanse, or indeed on water, without the need for airports or buildings.
“We can bring it much closer into cities. It could land on the Thames at Greenwich,” says Rod Sinclair, the company’s chairman.
It cruises at 130km/h using the vectored thrust of helicopter technology – hence the “hybrid” – but Airlander should be safer than a helicopter since it can fly on one of its four engines, uses 10 times less fuel, and is an order of magnitude greener. “We’ll always beat them on price,” says Mr Sinclair, an ex-investment banker at Barclays.
The company says the first diesel engines will cut emissions by 75pc. The gains will increase to 90pc after 2025 as electric engines are added, and then to 100pc emission free once hydrogen fuel cells come of age. “We’ll then dispense with carbon burning altogether,” says chief executive Tom Grundy, a former Airbus and BAE Systems engineer.
It once looked as if airships would never recover from the disasters of the 1930s. For the British it was the crash of the R101 on its maiden voyage to India in 1930. For the Americans it was the fate of the USS Akron, a flying aircraft carrier that went down in a thunderstorm off the East Coast in 1933, killing 73 crew. For the Germans – and the world – it was the inferno of the Hindenburg in plain view of the newsreel cameras as it was landing in New Jersey in 1937.
Modern aeronautics applied to the airship concept is a different story (we have ways to handle hydrogen), and it is now the fixed-wing jet industry in the dock of public opinion. High-carbon air travel risks losing its social licence to operate. A carbon tax is coming in earnest and will transform the cost equation. The airfreight industry may not survive en masse unless it cuts emissions drastically.
The Airlander was originally developed for use by the US military on intelligence missions in Afghanistan. It has returned with backing from the UK government and from EU grants. The company is working with Collins Aerospace and the University of Nottingham to develop the electric engines.
The bread and butter business will be logistics and freight, with a niche in green tourism and clean short-haul hops. OceanSky Cruises is planning eco-voyages to the North Pole on the Airlander 10, at low enough altitudes to see the features. It is not pressurised so you can even open the windows.
Cargo costs are expected to come in at $0.50 per ton/km for the larger model with a payload of 50 tons, roughly a third of operating costs for a fixed-wing Lockheed C130.
The open question is whether scale can eventually cut airship costs low enough to eat into trucking, overflying congested roads in Europe, India, or
China. Industrial cargo could be lifted directly from car manufacturing hubs in Germany to the UK’s hub in the West Midlands.
Vestas is exploring use of airships to deliver the unwieldy 80 metre blades for wind turbines. It says roads have “hit the limits”.
“Cargo airships can capture a huge swathe of medium-value freight,” says Prof Barry Prentice, an airship enthusiast from the University of Manitoba. The ultimate prize is to snatch a share from slower maritime shipping.
An academic paper from the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Austria proposes using the Jet Stream to transport cargo on transcontinental routes without any need for power beyond the initial lift and
‘We can bring it much closer into cities. It could land on the Thames at Greenwich’
descent. The cargo ships would float on high winds above 40,000 feet at an average speed of 160km/h, displacing fleets of container shipping at sea. The study claims that they would cut fuel use by 96pc.
The circular flow would always be from West to East – Shanghai to Los Angeles, New York to London, or Frankfurt to Mumbai – rotating in a perennial circuit. It would take eight days to cross half the world by the northern Jet Stream, and seven days by the southern route, beating maritime shipping on time as well as emissions.
These unmanned airships, controlled by artificial intelligence, could be over a mile long, with spectral airships passing far overhead in caravans along regulated bands near the troposphere, emitting no sound or CO2.
Hybrid Air Vehicles needs to raise another £120m to get going, with a target of building 40 airships a year and employing 2,000 people in the supply chain, possibly around the hydrogen cluster in Teesside. It is currently crowdfunding. “We’ve had a fantastic response,” says Mr Sinclair
However, there is competition. The French company Flying Whales has secured $23m of funding from the government of Quebec for helium dirigibles to supply the vast expanses of the Grand Nord. Lockheed Martin is developing its own cargo airship.
The UK start-up Varialift Airship had less luck than Hybrid Air in securing help from the UK government for its aluminium freight ship so it turned to France instead. “I hoped that England would be the centre of the hub but they frowned on us when we were looking for sites,” says Alan Handley, the company’s founder and chairman.
The French offered a disused military airfield at Châteaudun, where the first prototype for pilot training is being built. The company aims for full certification by 2023. A Boeing 747 requires at least 70 tons of aviation fuel to cross the Atlantic. Mr Handley says his ARH 50 model has the same cargo payload but needs just five tons of fuel for the same journey.
As always with a beautiful idea, there are big snags. Will aviation authorities certify airships that move to a different rhythm from established flight paths?
Is there enough helium in the world to sustain a big airship industry? The gas is used for MRI scans, semiconductors, and superconducting magnets, and lately on a grand scale by the likes of Netflix and Google because it greatly increases the storage capacity of hard drives and cuts power use.
A report by Edison said sources are chronically tight. In the end, however, demand has a habit of producing its own supply.
With some nurture, there is every chance that net-zero Britain could take the lead in carbon-free transport and create a booming green aviation hub.
The Airlander 10, created by Hybrid Air Vehicles in Bedford, has already completed seven flights of its prototype