Airship builders say the development of lighter, stronger materials will allow them to deliver on a century-old ambition of making craft capable of winning business from freight operators such as FedEx Corp. within three years.
A drop in the price of carbon fiber and advances in systems that can control the buoyancy of the even largest airships have also encouraged development of models that aim to move goods faster than surface ships and at half the cost of a Boeing Co. 747. A 500-foot dirigible being built by California-based Aeros Corp. will carry 66 tons, according to founder Igor Pasternak.
Manufacturers must overcome industry skepticism about a mode of transport widely regarded as obsolete, together with a lingering fear of lighter-than-air travel that can be traced to the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, in which 36 people died as the biggest-ever airship was consumed by fire in New Jersey. Airship makers argue their products are a cheaper means to move goods such as wind blades directly to the point of delivery.
“When it matures, the lighter-than-air industry will be as big as the fixed-wing sector, with a huge impact on freight movements,” said Barry Prentice, professor of supply-chain management at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. “But I can’t be sure that it’s finally going to happen in my lifetime.”
Airship manufacturers themselves are likely to be the first commercial operators in order to build confidence, he said. Commodities companies may be among early customers, Gary Elliott, chief executive officer at Britain’s Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd., said in an interview, adding that a study for a miner listed on the U.K.’s benchmark FTSE-100 index showed transport costs to a site in Africa could be cut by 40 percent.
Airships, traditionally rigid-framed craft with a lifting capacity well in excess of blimps that maintain their shape through internal pressure, might also be used to supply oil rigs to remote locations, Elliott said.
The receptiveness of the market will become clearer later this year when Cranfield, England-based Hybrid begins taking orders for its Airlander 50 model. Elliot is targeting the first commercial flight for the year after next. The company doesn’t disclose a price for its product.
Any sales to airlines would probably follow interest from logistics specialists including Memphis, Tennessee-based Fedex, operator of the world’s largest cargo carrier, and United Parcel Service Inc. of Atlanta, the No. 1 package-delivery provider, according to Prentice.
“These companies have tremendous needs for lift, and pressure on cost, so they would be likely customers,” he said.
Hybrid says its Airlander will beat aircraft shipments on price, allowing it to win some flows even though an Atlantic crossing would take two days rather than eight hours. And while sea-freight will remain cheaper, an airship has the advantage of being able to cut out transfer consignments on trucks and trains, aided by the ability to take off and land vertically.
“The whole concept of transportation will adapt,” said Elliott, whose company occupies the site where the R100 model was built in the 1920s to meet a requirement under the U.K.’s Imperial Airship Scheme.
British enthusiasm for the technology ended when a rival model, the R101 -- the world’s largest flying craft at the time with a length of 731 feet -- came down in France on its maiden overseas voyage in 1930, killing 48 of the 54 people aboard.
Elsewhere, American backing for the airship diminished in 1933 when the Akron, operated by the U.S. Navy, crashed into the Atlantic during a storm. The 785-foot craft had been built by a joint venture of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Germany’s Zeppelin, which developed its first model, the LZ 1, at Friedrichshafen on the shores of Lake Constance in 1900.
Germany persisted with the technology for four more years until the 804-feet LZ 129 Hindenburg -- bearing the swastika of Nazi Germany -- caught fire after a trans-Atlantic voyage. The older Graf Zeppelin, which made 590 successful flights including 143 across the Atlantic, was grounded the next day.
Zeppelin survives as Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH, which began developing semi-rigid airships in the 1990s and which won orders for three craft from Goodyear in 2011 for delivery in 2014 to replace aging blimps, reviving the decades-old alliance.
The last large-scale effort to commercialize rigid airships failed in 2002 with the collapse of Cargolifter AG. While the company remains in business making more modest balloon-like craft, its gleaming white 550,000 cubic-meter (19.4 million cubic-foot) hangar that rises in a field south of Berlin is now used as a tropical amusement park.
Over the past decade, the Pentagon has provided momentum for airship development as it seeks lower-cost surveillance capabilities. The Hybrid Airlander 50, which features a multi-hulled, non-rigid design, is a cousin of the Long-Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, which first flew in August and has been sold by Northrop Grumman Corp. to the U.S. Army for $517 for 3 airships, including some deployment costs.
The Airlander will measure 365 feet and feature a 440 cubic meter cargo compartment capable of handling standard containers, LD3-type aircraft boxes and other cargo forms.
Hybrid expects to set prices next month and needs 15 orders “to start cutting fabric,” with an initial public offering planned if demand blossoms. Elliott said he’ll avoid the over-aggressive expansion strategy that undermined Cargolifter, with thousands of shareholders losing their investment as a result.
Aeros is conducting indoor tests of its rival half-scale Aeroscraft model, with flights in the open planned mid-year. The Montebello-based company is seeking $400 million to fund full-scale versions with a near-3,500 mile range, mainly from U.S. federal and state sources, with certification sought for 2015.
Still, development of a viable airship industry remains hobbled by outdated thinking among regulators that has its origins in the Hindenburg disaster, Prentice said, among them a ban on the use of hydrogen that makes the craft more expensive.
“There is a lot of legacy regulation that was passed 75 years ago that hasn’t been updated,” he said.