Airship Fuel Tankers for Northern Resource Development: A Requirements Analysis

Airship Fuel Tankers for Northern Resource Development: A Requirements Analysis

Barry E. Prentice, Director, Transport Institute, University of Manitoba and Jim Thomson CA, Consultant, Mercatus Ventures Inc.


Harsh Arctic conditions and the lack of transportation infrastructure frustrate northern development. Without an effective means of getting to market, rich mineral deposits that lay buried beneath the tundra will likely stay there. Ground based transportation in the north, if available, costs ten to 20 times the equivalent of southern transportation. Even at these high prices, the construction of all weather roads for mining may be economically infeasible. While the climate is harsh, the physical environment is fragile. Moreover, aboriginal leaders are apprehensive about the social impacts of connecting their isolated communities to the south by road.

In terms of economic development, the Arctic is similar to the condition of Western Canada at the time of Confederation. Very few people lived on the Prairies, and furs were the only trade good that could justify the cost of transportation to an outside market. Once the railways were extended to Western Canada, the costs of imported goods fell, lower value commodities became profitable to export, and development capital flowed in with the waves of settlers. The Prairies needed a revolution in railway technology to breakout of its frontier economy.

Technological advances are leading to a new generation of cargo airships that could do for the Arctic, what railways did for Western Canada. Airships are a proven technology that was working reliably when people were still driving Model-A Fords, and nylon stocking were advanced materialsi. With the advent of ultra lightweight composite materials, modern avionics, vectored engines and computerized design capability, no technical impediments block the development of a new generation of safe and efficient cargo airships.

Airships offer a breakout opportunity to cut the cost of Arctic transportation and stimulate economic development in a manner that is respectful to both the environment and culture of the people. The purpose of this paper is to set forth the economic case for using a new generation of cargo carrying airships to support northern mining operations. The first section provides a brief sketch of the logistical requirements for a cluster of mines located in the North West Territories (NWT). Subsequently, an economic model is presented for an airship that could carry 84 tonnes of fuel or general freight. The model is general, rather than specific to any of the numerous designs that are proposed for cargo airships. The intention is to provide a target for airship builders, and a realistic option for northern mining companies to consider.

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