July 13, 2013 at 2:39 PM ET
Whether you call them blimps, zeppelins, dirigibles or airships, new breakthrough designs offer tantalizing possibilities for achieving the long-held dream of viable lighter-than-air travel and transport.
At a conference this week in Alaska, sponsored by NASA and the state's Department of Transportation, politicians, entrepreneurs, aviation enthusiasts, mining companies, Native American members and cargo industry representatives mingled in a series of speed networking sessions and PowerPoint presentations.
One of the main topics at the conference involved transporting goods to remote Alaskan towns and villages where weather conditions and poor infrastructure are a constant concern.
"Airships have the ability to go from one place to any other place," said Ron Hochstetler, technical chairman of the Cargo Airships for Northern Operations workshop. "It makes the world into an archipelago of islands where every community is now connected to every other community,"
One such airship at the conference, the Aeroscraft, uses new thinking to get around one of the big challenges facing airship travel.
Traditional airships need an extensive ground crew working in concert to add on as much weight as is taken off — otherwise the ship can float away. But the Aeroscraft, built by Worldwide Aeros Corp., compresses the helium that gives it lift into smaller tanks inside the ship, letting the rest of the membrane fill with air and the ship to land more like a traditional aircraft. The company has built a working model in a hangar in California.
Having completed all phases of testing under a Department of Defense contract, including in-hangar hovering and in-hangar lateral maneuvers, Aeros CEO Igor Pasternak says the next phase is commercial development for transport.
"You can fly anywhere you want and you can connect any point together," he said. In contrast to traditional hub and spoke systems like airplane cargo transport or trucking, you "create a vertical logistical system independent from in structure," said Pasternak.
‘New era of airships’
Flying zeppelins have long stirred our collective imagination, gracing the covers of popular science magazine covers with visions of a sky dotted by floating dirigibles. The spire of the Empire State building was supposedly built to serve as a zeppelin docking station — although Midtown Manhattan's strong winds blew those dreams away. Still, in the early 20th century, airships vied with the then-newly developed airplanes for dominance as the preferred means of sky transport.
But with lingering flickers of the deadly Hindenburg disaster, and trillions of dollars spent during America's major wars into fixed-wing aircraft development and the subsequent civilian airline industry, airships became relegated to the attic of flying oddities.
A few faithful, however, have kept the airship dream alive.
On Friday, Goodyear workers inside a cavernous hangar in Akron, Ohio, stretched a grey, polyester shell over the whale-bone like aluminum and carbon fiber trusses of the Goodyear NT, the first update to the company’s iconic blimp fleet since 1969.
Slideshow:New Goodyear blimp under construction
"We are ushering in a new era of airships," said Nancy Ray, Goodyear's director of Global Airship Operations. The new craft, built in Germany at the Zeppelin factory and assembled in Ohio, will be longer, faster, more maneuverable and quieter than the GZ-20 class it will replace, and able to carry even bigger and heavier LED screens at the baseball games and other events where the Goodyear blimps make regular appearances.
As reporters ascended into the air in one of the earlier model craft, the pilot turned a large wheel to maneuver the ship and the hangar and waving ground crew grew smaller. Through the panoramic windows, tiny specks of houses below dotted the green landscape. Moments later, the ship responded to the pilot's guidance, turning slowly, floating through the sky with a grace unlike any other aircraft.
An airship won't win many speed races, though. However, there are some geographic areas where other transportation means aren't viable — either because the locations are difficult to reach, it takes too much fuel to get there or the aircraft simply has too small of a payload.
Alaska and Northern Canada, for instance, are populated by communities of a few hundred people and separated by vast distances.
Improving quality of life
The costs associated with building and maintaining runways that can handle cargo deliveries can be significant, costing up to $400 per square yard.
But all an airship needs is a clearing.
Local inhabitants who often have to decide whether to heat their home or pay their mortgage are keenly interested in any way to bring down transport costs
So are mining, logging and energy companies. Alaska is full of "stranded resources," such as precious ores, timber and salmon, but the permafrost, treacherous ice roads and waterways that only penetrate so far make extraction costly. Proponents hope air ships could spur an economic boom for the region and greatly improve locals' quality of life.
Another win for airships is that at large enough scale, airships could carry cargo loads larger and heavier than any other means. For instance, the largest blade of a wind turbine you can get through the transportation system is about 100 feet long. Airships under development could potentially carry one 150 feet or more, which could double the amount of power the turbine could produce.
Each presenter at the conference in Alaska offered their own solution to the airship problems. Besides the Aeroscraft, another contender in the compressed gas approach is the VariaLift, notable for its patented welding techniques and having developed not just a concept craft, but an entire production line process.
Then there's the other big group of the new breed of airships, the "hybrids," which combine various aspects of existing aircraft technology, such as fins, a widened body to create lift as it engines through the sky. They can boast multiple lobes, and include Hybrid Air Vehicles' AIRLANDER 50 and AeroVehicles' AeroCat, as well as the Lockheed Martin LMZ1M design recently submitted to the FAA for certification under a new category created specifically to handle the groundbreaking craft.
Meanwhile, the Dynalifter by Ohio Airships is built like a plane, but with an ellipsoid body, and filled with helium gas. Its creators are designing it to be able to land and take off at traditional airports, offering the advantage of piggybacking off an established air infrastructure.
After cracking the cargo problem, sky cruises might not be far off.
Declining to name names, Aeroscraft's Pasternak said he's been approached by established players in the cruise leisure travel market interested in creating floating air cruise ships. Imagine sipping on a cocktail brought to you by a sky butler as you float past the Rockies and wave to the gawkers below.
For now, if you want to take one of these rides in the sky, you'll have to befriend one of the corporate sponsors of the blimps in the US, used mainly for advertising and promotional purposes. Or head to the birthplace of the zeppelin in Friedrichshafen, Germany, where the Zeppelin corporation offers a sightseeing tour aboard their namesake airship.
But things are looking up for airships.
Though serious technical, regulatory, and logistical challenges, remain, "there's a market demand, there's impetus, the planets are aligning for this industry to make a huge impact," said Prentice.
"People's eyes will pop out when they see the first airship, it's like seeing ocean liner in the sky," said said Dr. Barry Prentice, a transportation economics professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada. "We will not recognize the world after airships."
Heather Beyer contributed to this report from Ohio.
Follow Ben Popken@bpopken.