The Coming Giant Airship Renaissance as an Investment Opportunity, Part 3
The first two posts in this series have described airship markets in general, and intercontinental shipping, emphasizing the scale of the opportunity. With that in view, we have two key messages for potential investors in airship ventures.
The first is that high returns will come not from building airships per se, but from staking claims in the space of ideas, designs, and technological possibilities. Building airships is a means to the discoveries that will be made along the way, and to claiming a lasting stake in ideas that can aid the rise of a trillion-dollar industry. In turn, the innovators to whom it is indebted are rewarded.
Second, the ideas that will comprise the technological playbook of the future airship industry are interdependent, and their discovery, combination, and exploitation will need a certain degree of collaboration among the pioneers. Airship inventors and investors should stand ready to help each other.
A new industry is typically defined by an enormous array of technological principles, methods, techniques, processes, discoveries, protocols, and so forth. Some players in the industry will, in various senses, own many of these, conferring a claim to some of the surplus value that they generate through legal patents.
Patents are capitalism’s signature answer to the free rider problem that is inherent in innovation. New technological principles are non-rival goods and naturally non-excludable. If nothing were done about it, inventors would be public benefactors but would enjoy little or no personal reward for their efforts. Patents address this problem by conferring a temporary monopoly for inventors, thereby enabling them to extract a profit through use or licensing.
Capitalist societies support innovation in other ways too, e.g., through trade secrets, established brand names or product lines. These are sometimes protected by non-disclosure and non-compete agreements with key personnel. And publicly financed R&D and research universities, and private philanthropic foundations, have probably, taken together, been as important as the patent system for supporting innovation in the 20th century.
Problems as Opportunities
If your goal is to stake a claim in ideas that a future airship industry will find useful, then problems turn into opportunities. Each problem is a chance to come up with a solution, then own that solution and profit from it. Many of the ideas that a new generation of giant airships will embody, starting with lighter-than-air flight itself, are already known, and therefore cannot be owned. But there are lots of areas where better solutions would be useful, and patentable innovations might be developed.
Buoyancy control. It is easy to get an airship to fly – it’s lighter than air. It is harder to control the level at which it flies and to land safely. Buoyancy control is a term that can cover all aspects of regulating an airship’s weight so that it can fly at a preferred altitude, take on intentional loads such as paying cargo or unintentional loads such as falling snow or condensation. Buoyancy control is also necessary to remain safely on the ground after landing before and after load transfer.
Buoyancy control typically involves the exchange of ballast weight. Water ballast is the traditional and most obvious solution. It is globally abundant, often available in the wild, perfectly divisible, easy to move, easy to contain and often free. Air or gas compression is an intriguing alternative, but pressurization generates problematic amounts of heat, and cold on its release. It also has to be contained without adding unmanageable amounts of weight to the airship. But how much additional weight is manageable depends heavily on airship size. A buoyancy control system that is highly capable but exceeds the weight budget of an 800-foot airship, might be ideal for a 1000-foot airship.
Multiple buoyancy control systems could complement each other. For example, a water ballast system might be used for landing, while an air ballast system is used for controlling buoyancy in flight. The pioneers of particularly useful solutions could make high returns on royalties from licensing their patents, or as suppliers of buoyancy control systems to many airship builders.
Landing, mooring, anchoring and infrastructure. Buoyancy control aside, landing and mooring are difficult because of dangers on the ground. Airships, ultra-lightweight for their size with sail-like sides need to stay pointed into the wind. Many ideas like the one below that was patented in 1976 could provide a solution. Presumably, this one is now in the public domain.
One option to address this is to land on water, which has the added advantage of plentiful ballast. If cargo or passengers need to transfer to a barge to get to dry land, should the airship contain a detachable barge? That might be convenient in remote places but it would add weight. In a regularly visited destination, a barge customized for airship load exchange might stand waiting. What would that look like? Solutions are not hard to imagine and might be just difficult enough to be patentable, and useful enough to be worth licensing.
Alternatively, airships can moor on a mast, still airborne. But what if the wind changes? The airship would follow the wind, swinging round and pointing in another direction. This might be all right up to a point but could also be dangerous for load transfer. Solutions to that are not too hard to imagine but might be sufficiently difficult to implement as to be patentable and worth licensing.
Perhaps an elevator, winch, or crane system could efficiently transfer cargo and/or passengers between an airship at the mast and the ground. Maybe landing gear with augers that screw into the ground to hold the airship in place would work. Every solution must be closely audited for weight, and functionality trade-offs. Solutions that are too heavy at one airship size might become affordable as airships scale up. If airships become a trillion-dollar industry, pioneers of good landing and parking solutions can expect great rewards.
Taming hydrogen. Technological progress often depends on taming lethal perils. Seafaring peoples have been at the cutting edge of power and progress for millennia, but sailing has always been dangerous. Sailors in search of profit and adventure have always risked their lives to some degree, too often fatally. Early airplanes were very hazardous, and when cars were introduced, it was said that “the automobile has come to slay.” Today we live in cities crisscrossed by wires full of electricity strong enough to kill us, or we could die by sticking a fork in a toaster or dropping an iron in a bathtub. But we don’t because we have learned to be safe.
Likewise, if giant airships are to achieve their potential, the risks of hydrogen as a lifting gas must be overcome. Hydrogen has more lift, is far cheaper and more abundant than helium, and can be generated on-site anywhere that there is water. This confers important operational advantages. The task is far from insurmountable. Hydrogen is less flammable than gasoline, and sensors can easily detect it. The pioneers of solutions that tame hydrogen can look forward to great rewards from a future trillion-dollar giant airship industry.
Loading and unloading. Modern container ports have highly automated and very efficient systems for moving containers onto and off the great ships they serve. If airships are to achieve economic competitiveness as a major transport mode, they’ll need similarly efficient systems for loading, unloading, and sorting. An advantage that airship designers have in making efficient cargo loading systems is that the cargo hold can be spacious.
Propulsion and maneuvering. Airships will use propellers: nothing difficult about that, and perhaps few opportunities for patentable solutions. Stronger thrusters would be helpful, but greater rewards will probably come from improvements in control systems.
Propellers can be turned to alter how thrust is directed. If an airship has multiple propellers that can turn independently, these vectors can manipulate the airship’s position in three-dimensional space. What does that computational problem look like? If the planning and control is too complex for a human to perform in real time, yet it takes a human pilot to understand the mission and make substantive operational decisions even in the short run, how should human input be integrated with avionics and algorithms? This seems like promising territory for finding patentable solutions of high economic value.
Materials. Airship design tends to put a premium on materials with certain extreme properties. Above all, just about everything on an airship should be as lightweight as possible. But strength and durability are also needed. Also, because airships are so large, materials used to build them must be affordable in bulk. Rigid materials are needed for the frame, and fabrics for the hull and the ballonets. Good materials are available, but better may be possible, and patentable.
Modularity. Airship designs may benefit from being highly modular, able to swap out features and functionalities for specific missions. Methods to make airship parts interoperable could become industry standards, with many paths to ongoing profit for their pioneers.
Mass production. Finally, if airships are to be a trillion-dollar industry with thousands of them carrying cargo around the world, industry needs to learn to build them pretty fast. Robots may have a role, and there may be some equivalent of a Ford assembly line applicable to airships. Again, this should be a great opportunity for an inventor, though maybe at a later stage.
The Collaboration Challenge
Now, stepping back from these particulars, overall coordination is a problem in getting this industry launched. The airship industry needs to work together in identifying problems, ensuring fairness to inventors who come up with solutions, sharing good ideas, helping regulators get to yes, mobilizing capital, and meeting customers’ needs.