Airships in the Wild
It’s an old cliché that new transportation and communication technologies “make the world smaller.” Giant airships are poised to make it happen again. They will reduce the economic distance to faraway places, so there will be more travel and especially more trade, in a new wave of globalization. One aspect of this, the topic of this post, is dramatically improved access to the small islands and wild, exotic places of the world. Future giant airships will offer fans of nature the opportunity to visit almost anywhere on earth quickly and affordably, e.g. as a group charter or a catered cruise, to see wild areas that are remote from roads and infrastructure. This capability, sometimes called “remote access,” has no parallel among other modes of transport available.
The uniqueness of the capability of airships in accessing remote areas for tourism and cargo transport provides two important takeaways for potential investors.
- Remote access will be an early market for airships. Airships do not need to be price competitive to attract tourists to buy unique experiences. For freight, customers in remote areas are already paying very high transportation rates.
- The size of the remote access market for airships is potentially large and profitable. Indonesia has 17,500 islands spread out over 5,000 kms. They could easily employ 100 large airships, not to mention the pent-up transportation demand in the Arctic, Amazon, Siberia, Outback and Congo.
Airships are like the classic “killer app”; so necessary and desirable that it creates core value. As such, in remote areas airships would enjoy high margins, a large market, minimal competition and rapid sales growth.
The Ends of the Earth
Historians sometimes label the period from the 15th to the early 19th centuries as the “Age of Sail,” when amazing new sailing ships mastered the winds and waves and carried European explorers, traders, settlers and missionaries all over the world. By the time steam engines replaced sails, the surface of the Earth was entirely known, and most of it was connected by ties of commerce. The vast regions of wilderness that still remained were in the impassable continental interiors. Only with the development of the railways could pioneering farmers settle these new arable lands and extend the frontiers of civilization. Although the railways punched through wilderness areas to reach the arable lands, settlement did not extend much beyond the railway tracks.in the absence of farming.
Today, the whole earth is mapped, but areas destitute of infrastructure are still difficult to visit. Road networks largely occupy the same space as the railways. The sailing ship is the last major new transportation technology that is well-suited to reaching wild places, albeit only coastlines. At any natural harbor in the world, they could drop anchor and send crewmen ashore in boats. By contrast, trains, trucks, and commercial airplanes, as well as modern containerships, mostly connect developed places. They need regular refueling and infrastructure for transshipment of goods and exchange of passengers. Off their grids, the transportation options become limited to helicopters, bush planes, snow machines and horses. The dependence of modern modes of transportation on elaborate infrastructure contributes to a centripetal tendency in modern civilization. People cling to the infrastructure grid, and cost limits how far it gets built out.
Giant airships will allow unprecedented access to undeveloped or lightly developed points. An airship differs from a sailing ship in that it travels in an ocean of air. The airship operates in three dimensions instead of two, and it can go far inland, past the coasts, to the slopes of high mountains. Airships can go anywhere ships can along with places they can’t,, and they travel much faster. Unlike building all-weather roads for cars and trucks, airships have a very small ecological footprint. They only make contact with the ground at developed locations.
Airships in the Wild: Making Contact
How will airships drop off, or pick up, people and cargo in remote areas? There are many possibilities.
Some aspiring airship builders make it a selling point that their proposed airships will be able to land autonomously in any large area of unimproved land. Others envision fixed-base landing airships that only operate from prepared stations at the endpoints of a journey. An autonomously landing airship must have some method for anchoring the airship and holding it steady during transshipment, while a fixed-base airship would have a docking system on the ground. The capability to operate autonomously adds weight and complexity, which will probably make such airships less competitive for routine commerce. But rugged autonomously landing giant airships would be the best vehicles for emergency response, defense and pioneering missions in remote places. They will vastly outperform helicopters in range, weight and size of payloads carried.
Water landings on remote lakes and sheltered bays may prove to be for giant airships what natural harbors were in the Age of Sail. Almost any airship can land on water because it is a level clean surface, with no sharp edges, and the airship can gently float on the surface. Landing on a lake or sheltered bay also provides a ready source of ballast water to assist transferring passengers and transshipping cargo to a beach or barge.
Some giant airships, instead of landing, might “cast anchor.” This was done with the US Navy blimps that used large water bags as anchors. It is possible to envision lowering crewmen on ropes to install three or four anchors, wedged deep in the ground, to which a still floating airship will be fixed by taut cables, transacting with the ground by means of ladders, elevators, and cranes. Airships might also carry specially adapted helicopters or drones on board to transact with the ground without landing. Such operations would not be routine, but could be used for humanitarian missions to relieve populations in distress after a natural disaster destroys infrastructure, or to establish mining exploration camps.
Routine operations by fixed-base airships will also help remote areas to develop and prosper. Such docking stations could be much cheaper to build than airport runways. Working together, an autonomously landing airship might deposit the materials and crews to build an airship station. Subsequently, the fixed-base airship will resupply the new, rapidly growing, off-the-grid settlement.
Airships open up the possibility of a new age of pioneers. A glance back at the Age of Sail can supply an inventory of possible pioneer motives. Most Europeans stayed home, but those who went had different reasons for doing so. Many sought natural resources like gold, silver, cod, timber, or farmland. Others wanted to trade for silks, furs and spices. Some were religious missionaries, or sought freedom from religious persecution, while others were prosecuted and sent to distant penal colonies.
Most of these pioneer motives can be expected to operate today, once transportation technology makes it more economic to travel, settle, and do business in unsettled areas. Mining pioneers using airships might look, not for gold, but for rare earth metals. Agricultural pioneers might grow, not staple food crops, but premium products like organic shade grown coffee and organic grass-fed beef. Fish might be farmed in the ocean waters along wild coastlines (mariculture) instead of caught wild. Entrepreneurs might seek “green opportunities”, like building wind farms in far-off places to renewably manufacture energy-intensive products. Religious people might, like the Pilgrims at Plymouth long ago, seek to found new communities free from the temptations of modern life.
In a future age of giant airships, the remote areas of the earth will become more accessible, and many are likely to become more economically developed, while still being able to retain their natural beauty. Many remote mining opportunities that are not economic now will become so once giant airships are established as a viable transport option. Strange Lake in Northern Canada is an example. It has rich deposits of highly valuable rare earth metals (dysprosium and neodymium) but lies too far from any existing infrastructure to afford building a connecting road. When giant airships become available, locations like this will come into production, too.
However, even with regular airship service it is unlikely that the remote areas of the world will attract large numbers of permanent residents. Urban life is much better today than it was during the Age of Sail, offering a cornucopia of comforts, high-paying jobs and upward mobility. Over the past 100 years, populations have migrated to the big cities, and this trend is firmly established. Wilderness areas are not going to be lost, but they will become more economic to develop and greatly improve the lives of the small number of people who live there.
The airship is a “killer app” for reaching the remote areas that can lower costs and provide new capabilities for transporting people and freight. More people will be able to visit currently inaccessible areas, as tourists or pioneers, to enjoy the beauty that the natural world has to offer, without damaging or destroying it to get there.