Blimp Builder Targets Canadian Orders After Winning Funds

Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd., a U.K. producer of heavy-weightlifting blimps, plans to fly mining supplies into remote areas of Canada after winning funds from the British government to build its first commercial airships.

HAV will start making airships capable of ferrying 70-metric-ton loads in 2016, Technical Manager Andy Barton said in an interview. It’s in talks with more than 10 mining companies keen to ship equipment and mined ore without having to negotiate northern Canada’s icy roads, he said, without naming any.

Blimp manufacturers need mining contracts to creep back to life, 77 years after the Hindenburg airship burned and crashed in New Jersey, ending most buyer interest for decades. With better designs and a buoyant gas that can’t ignite, makers such as HAV are hammering out their first sales deals with the mining industry to complement truck and rail transport.

HAV plans to fly an airship, with a carrying capacity of 10 tons and the area of a soccer field, in Canada in October to tout for business.

The Cranfield, England-based company, which secured 2.5 million pounds ($4.2 million) of funds from the U.K. government last week, built its first blimp about 10 years ago and contracted it for advertising and filming. HAV’s second airship, sold to the U.S. Army for surveillance in Afghanistan, was returned in December because of budget constraints.

Airlander Construction

HAV, which is committing 2 million pounds on top of the U.K. funding, plans to start building a new 10-ton capacity Airlander 10 this year and the 70-ton capacity Airlander 50 in 2016 with a view to flying it in 2018, Barton said Feb. 28 at a hangar north of London. The smaller blimps will sell for about $40 million and the larger ones for about $100 million, he said.

The manufacturer is talking with mining companies about using the air vehicles to transport tin, copper, zinc and nickel ore, as well as heavy equipment for extracting iron ore or coal, Barton said. The 390-foot Airlander 50 will have a ramp to allow a caterpillar truck to drive straight in for shipment, he said.

HAV’s blimps, unlike zeppelin airships, don’t have an internal frame. Its new models will have four engines and an air cushion to allow all-terrain and water landings. They’ll be able to fly in winds of as much as 80 miles an hour, Barton said.

The company isn’t only targeting North America for sales. Amur Minerals Corp., which has a nickel and copper project in Siberia, says Chief Executive Officer Robin Young plans to view HAV’s 10-ton capacity airship next week and discuss the possible shipment of equipment to Russia’s Amur region. Without aircraft, it would have to spend about $150 million building a 350-kilometer (220-mile) road, according to the mining company.

HAV’s new blimps will consume a quarter of the fuel of conventional cargo planes, while operating costs will be about half, according to Barton. All lighter-than-air vehicles built after the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, when the airship’s hydrogen tanks caught fire killing 36 people, use non-flammable helium.

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