- Dr. Timothy X. Merritt
Race for the New Kingdom in the Sky - Part 1
A New Generation of Airships:
By 1937, the German Airship Hindenburg represented the pinnacle achievement of a lighter-than-air aerospace empire. She was routinely flying from Germany to both North and South America, delivering tons of mail, the occasional automobile, and once even a private airplane. In addition to her complement of 40 crew members, she could also handle up to 72 passengers in comfort and elegance (Hiam, 2014). As Hiam (2014) explains, “after the tragedy of May 6, 1937, not a single customer was taken up in an airship ever again, and by the start of World War II two years later, the airship had become entirely extinct” (p. 7). However, with new advances in materials and technology, coupled with the discovery in 2016 of a massive new global helium reserve in Tanzania (Leiden, 2017), an incredible race has begun to recapture the skies with a new generation of hybrid airships.
In 2016, a report by Transparency Market Research (Anonymous, 2017) estimated that the global airship market would increase in value from $153 million to $273 million by 2024. At stake is a portion of the immense international shipping industry, calculated to generate over half a trillion dollars in shipping fees annually (International Chamber of Shipping, 2020). If large-scale cargo airships can secure their niche in the global transportation network, by 2030 we are likely to witness a new golden era of airship aviation …a new kingdom in the sky
Alliances Needed to Address the Problem of Scale
Competitors in the race to develop the next generation of airships include industry heavyweights such as Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman. “Russia, Brazil, and China have (also) built or conceived prototypes, and Canada has designs for a few of them, including the Solar Ship” (Laskas, 2016). A number of prototypes have already flown, and improved models are now under development (Tatham, Neal & Wu, 2017). These new prototypes include the Lockheed-Martin LMH-1 with a payload of over 20 tons (Pocock, 2017), the 269-foot long Aeroscraft Dragon Dream, the largest rigid airship built in the US since the nineteen-thirties (Laskas, 2016), and Hybrid Air Vehicles’ (HAV) Airlander 10 with a ten-ton carrying capacity (Pocock, 2017). Yet, despite the enormous potential, a grave challenge to airship aviation remains; the current prototypes are nowhere near large enough to be commercially viable.
Airships achieve buoyancy by displacing air with helium, and thus are subject to the “square-cube law” in much the same way as seafaring vessels. “That is, if you double the length of a hybrid (or an airship), its surface area increases four-fold, but the resulting increase in weight and drag is handsomely compensated by an eight-fold increase in volume” (Pocock, 2017). William Crowder, a senior fellow at the Logistics Management Institute “calculates that cargo airships make sense economically only when they’re moving massive quantities of cargo – not twenty tons, what the LMH-1 could haul, or even sixty-six tons, the capacity of Pasternik’s smallest Aeroscraft, but more on the order of five hundred to a thousand tons, the payload of a super-jumbo carrier” (Laskas, 2016). Therefore, victory in the race will go to the organization that is first able to build the massive aircraft necessary to compete successfully in the global transportation market.
Prototype Airships Ready for Natural Disasters
With the capacity to operate in austere environments without the support of infrastructure normally associated with airports, hybrid airships are a natural choice for disaster relief operations. Hybrid airships appear to be ideal for “aid agencies that must bring rapid relief to stricken areas” (Pocock, 2017). Even the relatively smaller cargo capacity of prototypes is suited to emergency responses; “With these vehicles, you could drop off a twenty-ton slab of water that is clean, drinkable, to an African village” (Laskas, 2016). The platform has captured the imagination of so many interested parties that Tatham, Neal & Wu (2017) conducted an extensive comparison of different hybrid airship designs might potentially support three significant natural disasters; the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the 2015 Nepal Earthquake, and Cyclone Winston in Fiji in 2016 (p.102). While not economically viable as large-scale cargo aircraft, the hybrid prototypes that have already been built have the potential to fill a critical niche in disaster response logistics.
Form Alliances with Disaster Relief Logistics Networks
The hybrid airship industry is at a critical juncture where massive investments are required to build cargo ships large enough to be commercially viable. However, for many investors, extraordinary proof of concept is needed before they will be willing to accept the risks associated with entering the race. To gain advantage, the emerging airship industries should make their working prototypes available now by forming strategic alliances with global disaster relief logistics networks.