Group studying future of airships in Manitoba
By MARTIN CASH, Winnipeg Free Press
After 10 years of research, a 125-metre- long airship took its initial flight this week out of a massive hangar in Silicon Valley.
Backed by Alphabet co-founder Sergey Brin, the company, LTA (Lighter Than Air) Research, envisions using such airships for humanitarian relief.
The timing of that launch in California could not be better for the Manitoba Airship Research Task Force, a group out of Thompson exploring the possibility of making the city the hub for cold weather testing for the massive airships.
While the actual establishment of an airship industry is still in the conceptual phase, despite the test flight of LTA’s Pathfinder 1 and ongoing manufacturing development by a handful of other companies around the world, the idea is to try to position Thompson to be a player for the industry ahead of the pack.
LTA and at least one other manufacturer have sent letters of support to the task force, whose membership includes Barry Prentice, the University of Manitoba’s supply chain expert and director of the U of M’s Transport Institute, and a staunch, longtime airship advocate.
Prentice, whose volunteer board has spent the last year and a half drumming up support, is presenting to the Thompson group via Zoom, today.
Among other things, the group is looking to find $100,000 to bring in engineering support to produce a feasibility study.
Anecdotally, the group had been looking at a couple of open pit mine sites that nickel miner Vale is not currently using, which could be considered as potential sites for airship ground stations.
Volker Beckman, a Thompson businessman and one of the organizers of the task force, said that while Vale is a big supporter of economic development initiatives in Thompson, it may still have some interest in working those sites. A local rock quarry is now also being considered as a possibility.
But regardless of what a potential site would look like, the group is keen to engage regulators and industry players regarding rules of engagement.
“Regardless of what they are going to used for, emergency relief or heavy lift for industry, they are going to have to be tested for ice and cold weather operation. We want to make sure we get on their page as soon as possible,” Beckman said.
Prentice, who has been at the forefront of the conceptual development of such a mode of transport — he was also part of a small design and manufacturing enterprise — has long advocated for airships as a solution to the transportation challenges of Canada’s north.
He said the Sergey Brin-backed LTA development is very exciting for the industry.
“Now if we can get (Jeff) Bezos and (Elon) Musk to join the competition, we would be all set,” he said jokingly.
But the fact LTA Research has several NASA technicians on board and are taking their time to ensure no major mistakes are made that might set the industry back is encouraging, he said.
“They are being so careful and methodical, it gives me tremendous confidence,” Prentice said.
Thompson has long been the location for cold weather testing for all sort of vehicles. It’s also the home of the $42 million Global Aerospace Centre for Icing and Environmental Research cold weather jet propulsion engine testing facility co-owned by Rolls Royce and Pratt and Whitney to test their aircraft engines.
While government support for such a development continues to be challenging, both Prentice and Beckman are hopeful they might get a more sympathetic ear with a new provincial NDP government arguably more interested in addressing climate change, as well
as in economic development in the north, than had been the case with the previous Progressive Conservative government.
Prentice, who is giving the W. Rupert Turnball lecture at the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute next week — his topic is Airships vs Cargo Jets — has long advocated for the development of the technology as a way to open the north both to alleviate the transportation woes for people who live there and for industrial developments such as mining in remote regions.
He and Beckman said there are also economic development opportunities the entire province would benefit from.
“There is no doubt that the need is there, but I understand that no one wants to be first or alone,” he said.
“But at the same time you can’t be a leader if you don’t lead. How many chances do we have to land a brand new industry here in Manitoba and to be a leader?”
Friday, 10.11.2023 Page .B004 Copyright (c)2023 Winnipeg Free Press, Edition 11/10/2023