Written by Natalie Sauber, Market Intelligence Lead, Manufacturing & Technology, Arcadis.
Although we are once again starting to take space exploration more seriously, the main improvements in our lives appear to come in the form of more addicting social media algorithms, as so aptly explained in Netflix‘ latest documentary “The Social Dilemma”. At the same time, political debate is preoccupied by questions of social justice and discussions about breaking up dominant internet companies, ignoring anything new and exciting. To say the physical world has become stale is probably an understatement and as Marc Andreessen rightly observed at the beginning of this year, “It’s time to build”. Unfortunately, we tend to optimise within know constraints and often take the status quotas a given.
Saying that, this article is meant to shine a spotlight on an exciting development in an area where one might least expect it. After all, sometimes it is good to bring a combination of science fiction and steampunk back into our lives.
Taking long-distance logistics as an example, the general assumption seems to be that a plane offers speed and is expensive, while shipping is very cheap but will take a long time. This works reasonably well, as we can decide upon the trade-off between speed and cost on a case-by-case basis. For instance, urgent medical equipment might be more expensive but will arrive quickly by plane, but clothing is relatively cheap and will often spend many weeks on the waterways between Europe and Asia.
During a time when freight transport has become the largest single source of developed countries greenhouse gas emissions (close to a whopping 10%) and realistic attempts to develop zero-carbon technology are in their infancy, it is becoming increasingly important to think about potential alternatives.
Luckily, it now appears as though there is a new option on the horizon, able to offer an interesting trade-off along the speed and cost axis, while at the same time bringing significant environmental advantages. This combination could make the airship an important part of tomorrow’s logistics framework.
While we are only used to seeing airships as advertising vehicles for the likes of Goodyear and MetLife, these giant vessels used to play a significant historical role for transport and within our aerial defence efforts. Unfortunately, the gruesome destruction of the Hindenburg in 1937 (whose hydrogen envelope caught fire during a docking attempt) almost single-handedly ended civilian airship travel and most commercial applications. Given recent technological improvements, however, it is now time to seriously consider the advantages today’s designs could bring to the logistics industry.
- Airplanes need to be in forward motion to generate lift and stay in the air. Unfortunately, most of the fuel burned during flight goes towards this purpose. Airships, on the other hand, have their envelope to provide lift and can use all fuel to move forward, making them significantly more energy-efficient.
- Airships themselves might be very big but need significantly less ground infrastructure to support them. Due to their ability to take off vertically, conventional runways are not required, resulting in significant cost savings, whilst also allowing more direct point-to-point transport. In addition, airships are incredibly light and manoeuvrable, capable of changing direction quickly without changing speed, and even remaining stationary for extended periods of time
- Some of the current airship concepts range around 1,000 tonnes cargo capacity, that is twice that of the largest cargo planes. The main constraint are purely the size we can build and accommodate on the ground. Here it is important to understand that larger airships would bring significant economic advantages over smaller versions. Since airships fly via displacing air by lighter gas, the lift must be sufficient to carry both the airship and the cargo. Assuming everything is proportional, the volume of the envelop increases with the length of the airship with the power of three, while loading weight approximates the power of two. This means that larger airships will be able to carry disproportionally more cargo and operate significantly cheaper than their smaller variants.
Despite the multitude of compelling arguments for the use of airships, not everyone is optimistic. Some of the more comment arguments are voiced along the following lines:
- Airships have higher drag coefficients (which is increasing with the square of velocity), negating some of the fuel advantages. While this is true, the advantages are so substantial, that this is ultimately not a great concern and speeds can be varied between ~50-150 km/h to optimise costs, something that is not possible with planes to the same degree.
- Airships are more vulnerable to weather and more work is required to ensure they reach similar safety standards to planes. While this is partially true, it is also not surprising, the technology has now mostly been ignored for the last 80 years. At the time of the Hindenburg, planes were also considered dangerous and current airship designs are vastly superior to their earlier models
- There is a trade-off between helium (not flammable, but expensive and only available in limited quantities on Earth) and hydrogen (very cheap, but flammable). Ultimately planes carry thousands of litres of highly flammable liquid – this is just a question of safety development. In addition, hydrogen burns up, while passengers and cargo are below, allowing for new safety features that would not be possible with planes.
- On ground storage area is expensive. Airships require their own specially created hangers much bigger in size than your average airplane hangars. Luckily, this should be more than made up by the fact that there is no need for expensive runways and plane infrastructure.
The compelling arguments in favour of use for logistic purposes put airships in a class of technology, with nuclear power and space travel, all of which are experiencing an unexpected, but very welcome, modern renaissance.
When comparing airships to other long-haul logistics options, it is important to look at the economics. Although an overly crude concept, it is possible to look at the cost and speed of transport on a per tonne-km basis. Cargo planes can generally fly above 800km/h, but costs – considering the age of common cargo planes – are around $1. Ships on the other hand often travel at speeds of up to 20km/h, with costs that are lower by a factor of a hundred at 1c per tonne-km.
How does this compare to potential future airships? Given that we do not have experience to guide us, we can instead look at projects in development. Going of work done by the blog ‚The Roadless Revolution‘, this would lead us to conclude that on a comparative basis, airships would likely cost between 6-10c per tonne-km and operate at between 50-150km/h. This should immediately make clear why airships could offer such a compelling proposition in the future.
After having looked at the economics of airships, the next question should turn to the potential market opportunity. After all the investment only makes sense if companies could see a sufficiently large market in the future. The latest number for world GDP stands at about $81 trillion USD per year. Assuming over time each country approximates the US’ 9% GDP share of transportation and about 10% of global freight migrates to airships, this would equate to a $720 billion revenue industry, before any future growth and a clear reason to pursue the development.
At present there are several companies in the U.S. and Europe trying to stage a comeback for airships, across logistics and luxury travel.
Luxury tourism is the latest (and perhaps the most intriguing) attempt to make airships a viable economic proposition. A small UK-based company founded in 2007 has emerged as the front-runner in a race to bring environment-friendly versions of dirigible travel back to the skies. Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) with its flagship the 92-metre Airlander 10 airship is selling tickets for a day tour across the North Pole in 2023. Tickets started at $62,000 per two-person cabin; they have now climbed to $79,000.
The Airlander will not be alone in the skies either. Earlier this year, French airship company Flying Whales received $320 million in funding from the government of Quebec to build cargo-carrying Zeppelins. The airships have been designed in such a way that they are able to transport up to 60 metric tons of goods at altitudes of close to 3,000 meters through hard-to-reach areas with commercial production to begin in 2025. Since the French airship is a VTOL (vertical take-off and landing), it will not require any extra infrastructure to operate, allowing it to serve more remote locations without harming the environment.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin has also started an airship company. Brin’s humanitarian airship company LTA (lighter than air) is trying to reinvent airships for the 21st century to be used for humanitarian missions. At the same time, Skunk Works, the innovation arm of defence giant Lockheed Martin, is designing airships to carry medical supplies to remote locations.
If these airships can take off despite carrying a legacy of failed projects and distrust from the public in lieu of economic justifications that still seem more wishful thinking than reality—it might just be the return of the zeppelin.