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Shaping the Future: Cargo Airships

When you think of an airship, your first thought may be the infamous Hindenburg and its fiery disaster in 1937. Maybe you think of the Goodyear Blimp or the hot air balloon from the Wizard of Oz. Whatever your mind is first drawn to, you may not have known that airships actually pre-date all other aircraft types. The first airship was a hot air balloon launched more than 200 years ago in 1783. The drawback? There was no way to steer the lighter-than-air aircraft. Soon after, inventors began designing ways to propel and control these types of inventions. Pierre Jullien, Jules Henri Giffard, the Wright Brothers, Charles Renard, and Arthur C. Krebs, all contributed to the development of air transportation and the leaps and bounds the mode has seen. Even though these airships have been around longer than most aircraft, they’re beginning to make their way into the logistics industry. That’s the focus of this installment of our “Shaping the Future” blog series.

The Global Airship Race

The United States-based Lockheed Martin , United Kingdom’s Hybrid Air Vehicles, and French aerospace company, Flying Whales, are just a few competitors in the global airship race, all with current deals in progress.

Flying Whales has developed a 500-foot airship (twice as long as a Boeing 747 for perspective) designed to lift lumber from deep woodland. This cargo airship has a rigid structure with pockets of helium and is powered by a small diesel or electric engine that requires minimal power. To top it off, the Flying Whale will be able to lift an industry-leading 60 tons! The French company plans to open up public stock offerings in 2021, when the model is anticipated to make its first flight.

Lockheed Martin is a step ahead of Flying Whales. More than ten years ago, the security and aerospace company flight tested its airship prototype P-791. The full-scale hybrid airship, that will be able to carry 20 tons of cargo, is expected in 2019. With this new aircraft, Lockheed Martin is heavily highlighting its large cargo capacity, low fuel consumption relative to other forms of air transportation, and faster speed than land or sea alternatives.

Cost and environmental impacts

While the initial cost for creation of cargo airships may be high, the long-term economic and environmental benefits soar. The fuel needs of airships versus airliners are dramatically different. For example, a Boeing 737 burns the same amount of fuel moving from the airport terminal to the runway as an Airlander 10 does on a three-day flight. Additionally, Lockheed Martin’s P-791 burns less than one-tenth the fuel of a helicopter per ton. These cargo airships are structured with pockets of helium and small engines that require minimal gas power. This means that there would be less impact on air quality since the airships burn less fuel than a normal aircraft.

Additionally, airships don’t need runway infrastructure since they can pretty much take off and land on any surface and anywhere, including water. With more than two-thirds of the world’s land area not having direct access to roads or runways, this not only makes airships workable in remote locations without airports, but can also eliminate the need for the intermodal transfers – truck-to-ship-to-truck, etc. – which are the norm in logistics operations.

Carrying Cargo

Air cargo aircrafts can carry heavy weights, however they normally tend to carry bulky but low-weight items such as perishable foods and flowers, so only a small portion of the weight capacity is utilized. Airships, however, have very large internal volumes for cargo storage, making them suitable for the transport of bigger or bulkier items like construction equipment or vehicles.

Finally, it’s worth highlighting Amazon’s airborne fulfillment center (AFC) that “may be an airship” and from which drones could be dispatched to make deliveries to purchasers. While Amazon’s plans are still in the works for these flying warehouses, the mention of airships does indicate a brighter future for these helium filled vessels in the sky. Even though there isn’t a specific timeline for the AFC’s, we are certainly expecting to see more movement with cargo airships within the next few years.

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