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A new generation of airships takes flight



The smooth, white underbelly of the airborne whale sails through the sky, casting a shadow over the forest below.

Other than its enormous size, however, this “whale” has very little to do with its animal namesake. It’s an airship, and French aviation company Flying Whales hopes its helium-electric hybrid ship will change the shape of sustainable transportation.

The airship could help solve the problem of transporting goods “when the infrastructure is lacking, or simply does not exist at all”, explains Romain Schlack, communications manager at Flying Whales. “We will add new possibilities to global logistics, while overcoming obstacles and problems on the ground.”

Airship technology has been around for over 150 years and gained popularity in the early 1900s carrying passengers and cargo across land and ocean.

But as airplanes got faster and more sophisticated, airships couldn’t keep up. Then, in 1937, an airship called the Hindenburg caught fire, killing 36 people, firmly marking the end of the golden age of airships.

Now, nearly 90 years later, interest in lighter-than-air transportation is reviving. With low carbon emissions and no requirement for expensive land-based infrastructure like airports or roads, as they can load and unload goods while hovering, airships could be a sustainable solution for logistics across the globe.

Flying Whales is developing a 200-meter-long airship that will be lifted by 14 helium-filled cells and then propelled through the air by a hybrid-electric system powered by sustainable aviation fuel.

Carrying at least two crew members, the airships will be able to carry up to 60 tons of cargo, about the same as two to three cargo trucks.

Schlack says “flying whales” are designed to carry heavy, bulky objects such as wind turbine blades, logs collected from steep mountainsides, or building materials delivered to remote and isolated locations. Airships could also deliver food or aid after natural disasters, when railroads or roads might be inaccessible.

Compared to helicopters, which are the go-to mode of transport for remote cargo deliveries, Flying Whales claims its airships will produce less than 10% of carbon emissions while in operation. Additionally, their freight system leaves the wilderness and countryside untouched, while connecting small rural areas. communities to the wider global supply chain.

Flying Whales isn’t the only company trying to revive airships: other startups, like LTA Research, backed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, are also exploring this low-impact transportation solution.

But a key question facing manufacturers is which lighter-than-air gas to fill the balloons with: hydrogen or helium?

Hydrogen is cheap, renewable and has more lifting power than helium. However, it is highly flammable and has long been associated with devastating airship disasters like the Hindenburg.

That’s why most companies, including Flying Whales and LTA Research, use helium, which is non-flammable.

San Francisco-based LTA Research is building its helium-powered airship, Pathfinder 1, at facilities at Moffett Field in California (pictured).

However, helium is less buoyant than hydrogen and more expensive, with unstable prices: between 2011 and 2016, its price increased by 250%, and in 2020, it was up to 67 times more expensive than hydrogen.

More importantly, however, the helium supply could run out.

At current rates of use, the American Chemical Society says it could disappear within the next century. This is a problem because helium is vitally important to a variety of industries. It is used in medical equipment like MRI machines, and there is currently no alternative.

Barry Prentice, a professor and former director of the Transportation Institute at the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business, says that’s why it’s vital that airships start using hydrogen again.

Prentice is also the founder and president of BASI, a Manitoba company specializing in airships suitable for cold climates. The company is developing an airship that uses hydrogen for transportation, in hopes that the Canadian government will relax its regulations on hydrogen use.

Advances in science and technology over the past century have made using gas safer, Prentice says. For example, hydrogen is only flammable when mixed with air, which could happen if the balloon leaked – which is suspected to have happened on the Hindenburg. Modern technology such as “hydrogen sniffers” that detect leaks can help manage this, Prentice says.

California-based company H2 Clipper is developing an airship (shown here in a render) that uses hydrogen for lift.

And while the FAA lists hydrogen as an unsuitable lift gas in its airship certification criteria, the European Aviation Safety Agency updated its regulations in 2022, allowing any lift gas, as long as the risks associated can be adequately addressed and mitigated by design.

BASI isn’t the only organization pursuing hydrogen-powered airships: FlyWin, an airship design project based at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, is exploring materials and design for the safe use of hydrogen, while that hydrogen delivery company H2 Clipper aims to have its hydrogen airship in commercial operation before 2030.

Those who opt for helium say the volume needed for airships is minimal compared to the supply. “Each airship will be filled with 180,000 cubic meters of helium,” says Schlack. With 160 million cubic meters produced worldwide in 2021, each airship would represent around 0.1% of annual helium production. “We are quite confident in the supply of our planes,” he says, adding that the helium is not consumed by the airships, but “stored” in the balloons, and only requires small top-ups from time to time. time.

The choice of gas isn’t the only challenge – scale is also an issue.

“There is no small airship,” Prentice said. Companies need to invest in giant workshops and prototypes need to be successfully tested, modified and retested before even considering a commercial production line, he says.

Flying Whales plans to build its first hangar and assembly line next year in Laruscade, near Bordeaux, France, but other companies are forging ahead using historic hangars.

LTA Research bought Akron Airdock in Ohio, built in 1929, and Hangar One near San Francisco Bay in California, built in 1933. And the British company Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) uses hangars at Cardington Airfield, in the south of England. , which were used to build airships in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Airlander 10, a hybrid aircraft built by HAV, made its first trip in 2016 and is pictured here during a test flight the following year.

Finding premises has given these businesses a head start. LTA’s 400-foot (122-meter) long prototype is already floating inside its California hangar, and HAV tested its first hybrid aircraft, the Airlander 10, in 2016.

Flying Whales plans to test its first airship in late 2025, with commercial operations beginning in 2027 once the airship is certified. Schlack says the company plans to quickly ramp up production thereafter. It has a second assembly line planned in Quebec and is looking for a partner in Asia to install a third.

The company raised 122 million euros ($130 million) last year, which it will use to grow its office teams in France and Canada, and is already discussing needs and requirements with potential clients, before launching its commercial services.

“Our goal is to have airships more or less everywhere,” says Schlack.

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