Can air­ships pro­vide the fu­ture of green travel?

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business - By Am­brose Evans-Pritchard

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.