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Airships: Back to the Battlefield.

As we set on the path to becoming climate-neutral, new transport solutions are needed if we are to meet the net zero-emission goals by 2050. One possible solution for the aviation industry that has recently attracted attention is reconsidering the implementation of lighter-than-air aircraft, better known as airships or blimps.

After a series of unfortunate accidents in the 1930s followed by the rapid increase and development of aeroplanes during WWII, the use of airships was limited to activities where the ability to hover for a long time outweighs the need for speed and manoeuvrability.

Today, only a few airships are in operation globally, functioning mostly as promotional material in sporting events or for military purposes. However, as concerns about the carbon footprint of aeroplanes increase and safer technologies are developed, a few companies are hoping to change that.

Hindenburg crash of 1937, where 36 people died. (Photo by Sam Shere/Getty)

One example is Hybrid Air Vehicles, a small Bedford-based company that is promising an alternative transport solution with its commercial passenger airship that could slash flying’s CO2 emissions by more than 90%, offering a more sustainable form of transport for shorter distances. From 2025, the company hopes to transport up to 90 passengers on short-haul journeys with its hybrid-electric airship, like Liverpool-Belfast or Barcelona-Palma, emitting 90% less C02 when compared to a regular aeroplane. By 2030, the company aims to develop an all-electric option, providing a zero-emission alternative. (Source: Hybrid Air Vehicles)

Hybrid Air Vehicles - Airlander's mobility cabin concept (source: Hybrid Air Vehicles)

Another example is Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works in California, which have been working on a one-of-a-kind HybridAirship prototype that it is believed will be able to affordably deliver heavy cargo and personnel to remote locations around the world while burning less than one-tenth the fuel of a helicopter per ton, all while remaining faster than traditional land and sea transportations. The company estimates that more than two-thirds of the world’s land area and more than half of the world’s population do not have direct access to paved roads or runways, enabling the airship to support a range of activities in areas with little infrastructure, including humanitarian relief, natural resource extraction and heavy cargo operations (Source: Lockheed Martin).

Blimps can be very useful in areas where there no road or rail infrastructure (source: Financial Post)

Finally, Flying Whales, a French start-up is also determined to explore the technology’s full potential, working on an airship that will be able to transport up to 60 metric tons of goods through hard-to-reach areas and travel at up to 62 miles per hour. The company aims to provide an eco-friendly substitute for trucks and helicopters by developing a blimp that does not require any road infrastructure and has the ability to carry large and heavy machinery required for industries such as oil and wind energy generation (Source: Air Liquide).

Despite the promising benefits that these three enterprises provide, many remain sceptical of the scalability and practicality of the airship technology. It is clear that the costs of manufacturing and running are high. However, with an increasing demand for cleaner transport methods, and the rapid adoption of different countries on the net zero-emission goal by 2050, the aviation industry must continue to develop more sustainable solutions that can meet the current environmental needs. The airship technology is a strategy that should have further study and investment.

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