Canada’s Vast Geography; Using Airships to Transform Challenge into Opportunity

Canada’s Vast Geography; Using Airships to Transform Challenge into Opportunity

Canada’s Vast Geography; Using Airships to Transform Challenge into Opportunity

Canada is the second largest country by area, consisting of almost 10 million km2, and has the world’s longest coastline. The terrain challenges of the Arctic and Canadian Shield, combined with the vast distances make surface infrastructure very costly. Over 70% of Canada’s territory has neither rail, nor road access. This immense landmass and long coastline are hard to police, or to respond to environmental emergencies. As climate change opens up more of the Arctic Ocean to navigation, even Canada’s sovereignty over its Arctic Archipelago has come into question. Airships can facilitate the data collection, observation and surveillance necessary to administer public policy over this enormous, impassable geography.

Airships can perform a menu of aerial platform missions. Their long endurance can assist in the enforcement of laws and regulations to prevent smuggling, poaching, overfishing and pollution. Their quiet, vibration free flight can contribute to scientific study of air quality, wild-life and climate change (earth science research). Observational platforms are also useful to coordinate emergency efforts, like forest fires, humanitarian relief and peace-keeping missions. Airships can carry delicate, sensitive equipment to identify promising mineral deposits, abandoned land mines and hydrologic parameters at the subsurface level. Four of these roles (remote sensing, environmental monitoring, regulation and enforcement, and coastal patrol) are examined in more detail below.

Remote Sensing

The endless tracts of woodlands and tundra contain a considerable variety of mineral and oil-rich geological formations. The challenge for industry is to sift through the multitude of potential resource deposits to determine those areas of maximum potential. Once these sites are determined, companies can decide how to invest for development.

Using the mining industry as an example, typically prospecting begins with studies of mineral formations, followed by ground crews to map the areas more specifically and subsequently cores are drilled for further study. Innovations over the few past decades have made prospecting from the sky much more accurate, but airplanes and helicopters have limitations caused by their speed and vibration.

Airships are well suited to fly airborne geophysical surveys. They can remain in the air much longer to produce a more cost-effective continuous data. Airships use much less fuel for the same amount of flying time. Finally, the movement of an airship causes less vibration for the sensitive electronic equipment that is used for geophysical surveys. Lower costs and higher quality data collection is a winning combination. This was proven in Botswana where a Zeppelin NT was successfully deployed with gravity sensing equipment to locate kimberlite pipes.

Zeppelin NT in Botswana outfitted with Geophysical Prospecting Equipment


Landmines are a cheap way of rendering territorial areas impassable to troops in conflict situations. The problem is removal after the fighting has ceased and civilians return to their homes and farms. Buried landmines remain active and dangerous. Lands that have been reclaimed for agriculture form a terrible scourge to rural populations, particularly children. Currently about 60 countries around the world still have buried landmines, often as a result of extended civil wars. Especially large numbers are found in Africa, South America and Asia. Removal efforts are complicated by difficult terrain features and natural factors altering the landscape in which the mines are buried.

Removal of Land Mines in Colombia


Ideally, landmines should be detected without physical contact. Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) can identify the approximate location and soil depth where individual landmines may be situated. Airships have a significant advantage over traditional data collection and GPR methods because of the lower signal noise generation, the ability to have longer time aloft and the reduction of risk to removal teams.

Environmental Monitoring

Air quality needs to be monitored during the extraction and reclamation phases of a mine or oil well’s life cycle. Dams and on-site settling basins (tailings ponds) are used to sequester toxic by-products of the mining process from the natural environment. Oil wells have to burn off excess gases, which can be trapped in the oil formations, that emit waste products and particulate matter into the atmosphere. Air samples are collected, and then gas chromatography is used to identify methane and other volatile organic compounds.

Currently, small aircraft are used to house and fly the collection equipment, but the vortexes they create disturbs the air that they are trying to measure. Airships would have a significant advantage over fixed-wing aircraft because of their generous cargo space for equipment and longer flight time. An airship can shut its engines and drift with the air that is being sampled. Gas chromatography equipment could even be housed on board the airship, if speed of analysis were imperative.

From both an environmental and legal perspective, it is important to ensure that the closure, rehabilitation and stabilization of the sites is completed and safely addressed. If there were to be a degradation of the mine site, spill or a dam failure on a tailings pond, it would be vital to gather data about the extent and degree of the incident. Airships would be ideal for this type of low altitude, environmental data surveillance.

Broken Dam and Tailings Pond, B.C. Canada


Regulation and Enforcement

Many illegal activities arise that are difficult to track and intercept. Poaching, smuggling, tree cutting, illegal human trafficking (immigration) all occur far from urban centres. The limited staff of conservation and law enforcement officers is often spread too thin. Even when clear evidence of crime is available, it is difficult to track and capture offenders. The silent, persistent airship platform provides the ideal vehicle to identify and direct ground forces to intercept the perpetrators.

Effective management of offshore fisheries requires a combination of scientific estimation of fish stocks, reproductive capability and reasonable commercial license quotas. Fish catch data needs to be accurately reported and independently confirmed by inspection. The fishing industry is repeatedly confronted with illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing from foreign-flagged vessels within Canada’s waters or just outside the exclusive economic zone. Illegal vessels can dramatically impact marine resources. Given the long coastline that needs to be monitored and the number of either boats or planes available, this is a formidable challenge for the Government of Canada. Current technologies (satellite tracking and Canadian Coast Guard), have difficulties monitoring foreign ships, and if required, to pursue and impound the illegal vessels. Airships patrolling Canada’s coastal waters could provide early identification and alerts of potential illegal activities in Canadian territorial waters.

Illegal Fishing Vessel in North Pacific


Coastal Patrol

Monitoring traffic and pollution in the marine environment is another area where airships could have a vital role. Oceans are the final resting place for large volumes of untreated waste, agricultural runoff, ship bilges and chemical effluents. Solid wastes are also recognized as a threat to marine wildlife (industrial garbage, plastic debris, ghost fishing nets, etc.). These elements enter the marine environment at innumerable locations around the globe, and either sink through the water column or are transported via currents to coastlines on every continent.

Tracking trash and pollution along marine coastlines and further offshore is an important task that is currently done by satellite imagery or intermittently from aircraft or ships. It would be possible to install data collection equipment (video cameras, instrumentation) semi-permanently on an airship that was making regularly scheduled routes along a coast. This would provide the opportunity to maintain long-term visibility to minute changes in pollution or to any potential changes in the circulation of large mats of oceanic plastic debris. Substantial information and data could be collected proactively and tracked over longer periods. Effective tracking and reporting of untreated or illegal pollution to both national/ international authorities would be a significant step forward to the resolution of these issues.

Oil Spill, Atlantic Ocean


A long-standing diplomatic dispute exists over whether the Northwest Passage is Canadian territorial waters, or an international strait. This issue is coming to a head as polar routes become ice-free over the next 25 years. Canada needs to effectively monitor marine traffic in the high Arctic, in order to regulate shipping, navigation and provide disaster response capabilities. The airship that can fly over open water, ice and islands is ideal as a vehicle to maintain Canada’s presence and rapid response.

Northwest Passage



Airships can provide ideal aerial platforms for data collection and surveillance. An airship can fly relatively close to the ground, only a few hundred metres from the surface. They have minimal vibration that improves geophysical surveys and remote sensing. The vehicle can float with the wind for air quality sampling. Their famed endurance allows for persistent monitoring and tracking of marine polluters and other illegal activities. In general, an airship aerial platform can obtain higher accuracy and lower operational cost than currently available airplanes or helicopters. Canada could use airships in remote locations, to fly extended missions without the need for expensive ground infrastructure. The need for airships as aerial platforms is not unique to Canada and they could find application in many countries around the world.

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