Airships to the Arctic III: Conference Proceedings

Airships to the Arctic III: Conference Proceedings

Held in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada – May 31st – June 2nd, 2005


By: Dr. Barry E. Prentice, Transport Institute Professor, Supply Chain Management, I.H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba

The Airships to the Arctic Symposia were created to provide a forum for the discussion of the supply of a new generation of airships and the demand for their services in northern and Arctic regions. The third Airships to the Arctic conference opened with a public lecture by Canada’s foremost airship engineer and professor, Dr. Jim DeLaurier of the University of Toronto. Dr. DeLaurier’s Project Ornithopter is a story of invention, science, learning and persistence that has put Canadian aerospace engineering at the forefront of this field. It is this body of engineering knowledge that is leading to a revival of the airship industry worldwide.

Sustainable transportation is the theme of the Airships to the Arctic III. Sustainability has several dimensions that touch upon environmental, social and economic issues. In the proceedings of this conference attention is directed to each of these aspects of sustainability. Environmental sustainability is being affected by climate change in the Arctic. Warmer average temperatures are diminishing the ice cap on the Arctic Ocean, melting permafrost soils and testing the ability to operate winter ice roads. Most aspects of transportation are made more difficult with the exception of sea lifts that may have a longer shipping season to serve coastal communities. Transportation can also have negative impacts on the environment. In particular, great concern is being expressed regarding the impact that the construction of all-weather roads has on the wild-life and eco-systems of the Boreal Forest.

Social sustainability is a sliding scale that changes with improvements in the general standard of living. Most Canadians enjoy a standard of living that is common in the G8 countries. This is not the case for residents of the First Nations Indian reserves and other remote communities. The cost of transportation makes the basic food basket in remote communities 2.5 times more expensive than it is in the cities. Isolation leaves the remote communities with double digit unemployment levels, general dependence on welfare supports, second rate public services and bad health. Unbalanced diets and inactivity are linked to an incidence of Type 2 Diabetes that affects 25 percent of the First Nation populations. As the general standard of living in Canada has been rising, the social sustainability of northern communities has been stagnant or falling.

Economic sustainability requires access to viable commercial markets. Expensive transportation limits economic development and reinforces the inadequate income problem in the North. Fish and furs are the only backhaul products of the remote communities that can bear the cost of transportation. At the same time, the cost of providing services, such as health care, keeps rising. This situation can only be rectified by a revolutionary change in the cost and availability of transportation, such as is promised by a new generation of airships.

A new generation of cargo and passenger airships could address these problems and provide a more sustainable means of transport for the North. The demand for airships is diverse in scope and potentially very large. Applications discussed at this conference include the shipping needs of northern mining, the movement of oversized equipment and emergency response in remote areas. Logistics requirements can also be assessed from a market segment and a sectoral perspective. The transportation requirements for housing construction are described for remote Indian Reservations. A broader approach is taken to the transportation needs of the State of Alaska. These presentations illustrate the range of demand for airships and identify applications that exist for 10 tonne, 20 tonne and larger cargo airships.

The last presentation of the first day provides a bridge to the supply requirements for the airship industry. Existing airships are not certified for operations in icing conditions and cold weather. For airships to be truly economic and sustainable in the North, they must have the capability to operate year round. Thompson Manitoba is a recognized location for cold weather testing of transportation equipment. A delegation from Thompson welcomed the airship industry to begin a dialogue for cold weather testing and certification at their community.

The supply side of the airship industry is represented by six different companies. Although progress has at times seemed painfully slow, these presentations indicate steps are being taken on several fronts to advance the technology. The Zeppelin company announced the stretched version of their successful NT series that will be available in late 2008/early 2009. The new model (NT14) will carry 19 passengers and will enjoy a larger operating envelop than the existing 12 passenger model (NT07). Zeppelin has also found a new and promising use for its airship in the geological survey market. 21st Century Airships reviewed their progress in high altitude airships and announced their intention for a “round the world flight” at 30,000 feet. This flight is planned for early 2006.

Pioneering efforts in rigid airships and hybrid aircraft were presented by DELCON, Ohio Airships and HAC. The commonality of these three airship projects is the focus on the cargo segment of the market. Each of these approaches is technically different. A diversity of designs is common in the early development of any technology and it is impossible to predict which approach will dominate the freight market. What is clear is that all three approaches are going to be tested and competition will sort out a leader.

The surveillance and communications markets were addressed by the American Blimp Company (ABC) and Techsphere. As security issues come to the fore, the endurance and cost advantages of airships become more attractive. ABC is focusing on the low altitude applications, while Techsphere is addressing the high altitude market. While these applications may not be as pertinent to sustainable transportation for the North, advances in any aspect of the airship industry will benefit all manufacturers.

It has been said that anything can be built that can be imagined, providing that you have the materials. Two technological advances that are propelling the building of airships are composite materials and UAV flight control systems. Composite materials can provide the strength to lightness ratio that enables airships to be constructed that are safe and efficient. UAV flight control systems create the opportunity to minimize the costs of long endurance operations and are crucial for high altitude operations. These presentations remind the conference of the intangible factor that is essential for the successful expansion of the airship industry: engineering knowledge. These technologies represent only two of the many components that make up an airship, but the level of sophistication described in these presentations suggests the capability inherent to build the next generation of airship technology.

The keynote speakers of the conference provided insights and depth to the conference. Dr. Heather Dean, Richard Van Treuren, Ken Young and Dave Murray added substance and thoughtful comments to the attendees. Also, the delegates were greeted by our elected politicians. His Honour, Mayor Bill Comaskey from the City of Thompson opened the public lecture, the Honourable Ron Lemieux, Manitoba Minister of Transportation and Government Services welcomed delegates to the first day of the conference, and the Honourable Jim Rondeau, Manitoba Minister of Industry, Economic Development and Mines welcomed delegates to the second day of the conference.

The third Airships to the Arctic Symposium would not have been possible without the support of many volunteers and the financial assistance of our sponsors. It is also important to note that all speakers contributed their time and travel expenses to make this conference possible. The list of sponsors and brief speaker biographies are presented at the end of the document. The planning and execution of the conference spanned 12 months and several members of the Transport Institute were involved. In particular, Sharon Cohen and Kathy Chmelnytzki were directly involved in the organization of the conference and preparation of the proceedings. Finally, we appreciate the patience and participation of the speakers tomake these permanent proceedings possible.

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