🇺🇸 Airships over the Arctic: 2 companies are looking into it

By Jorge Antunes, Nunatsiaq News - July 26, 2023
Flying Whales is a French company with a subsidiary in Quebec. The company is working with Canadian North to look at possibly using airships in the Arctic. (Photo courtesy of Flying Whales)

Could giant flying airships offer a better way to transport cargo in extreme Arctic conditions?

Canadian North and French airship company Flying Whales want to know, and are working together to research the use of cargo airships in the North.

“We hope to be able to help Flying Whales with the development of their aircraft,” Canadian North CEO Michael Rodyniuk said in an interview.

A representative from Flying Whales could not be reached for comment.

The two companies are looking at airships, which are similar to blimps — like the Goodyear Blimp — except airships have a frame while blimps are a giant balloon.

Flying Whales is proposing to use airships that are 200 metres long — nearly three times longer than a Boeing 747 — and would be able to carry 60 tonnes of cargo.

Canadian North has been flying in the Arctic for 77 years and believes that expertise could help overcome the harsh environment and other challenges such as winds, icing and darkness.

“Anti-icing systems, the ability to hover for a period of time in very strong winds. What would be required as far as tethering or masting” — all of these things need to be considered and Rodyniuk said he believes Canadian North could help answer those questions.

For the time being, the two companies are working together to answer questions like that.

Rodyniuk said if Flying Whales can develop an aircraft capable of flying in the Arctic, his airline would consider acquiring it.

Cargo airships are seen by some as a possible solution to infrastructure deficits of the North.

Airship technology has advanced significantly since the 1930s when it was popular for a time, said Barry Prentice, a professor and director of the University of Manitoba Transport Institute.

He said it wasn’t the several high-profile disasters, such as the Hindenburg explosion in 1937, that killed the dirigible industry in its infancy. Rather, it was the advent of commercial air travel and jet engines.

Jet planes were faster, cheaper and could carry more passengers than dirigibles.

Most of those factors still remain true, he said, which is why the newest evolution of airships is focused on cargo shipping. Airships need minimal infrastructure and can drop off cargo in the most remote locations.

Prentice has been studying and advocating airships being used for cargo for more than 20 years and said it’s only recently that real progress is being made.

He compares it to the development of the internet, where early on there wasn’t much interest on the part of the government or investors until the mid-1990s when investment exploded.

He believes that the tipping point is approaching or, as he calls it, “airship mania.”

“This idea is like a pent-up idea that’s been working away for a long time,” Prentice said, predicting “there will be a lot of money flowing into this” once people understand what airships are capable of.

Considering existing projects, he believes the tipping point is likely about five years away.

Modern airships are also environmentally friendly. Current designs feature electric engines and don’t use any fuel beyond the hydrogen that’s needed to inflate them. Airships would maintain a tiny carbon footprint, which would only improve as green sources of electricity increase.

To that end, the huge open spaces of the Arctic are ideal for wind farms, Prentice said. While the region does not get as much sun as the south, vast arrays of windmills could be deployed.

The entire North is dependent on diesel for energy, which has been a bone of contention between the northern premiers and the federal government’s approach to fighting climate change.

In addition to green energy development, he said airships could be used in mining operations, transporting building materials for homes, and transporting fresh fruit and vegetables year-round.

The airships are even large enough to be used as mobile hospitals or medical clinics, which is specifically part of Flying Whales’ plans.

It’s hard to get a dentist to move to a remote community with a population of 400, Prentice said, but with an airship dentists and their technicians could be brought to the community.

Food prices in the North are “horribly expensive,” Prentice said, but with less-expensive shipping “there’d be no need for a food subsidy, [for the] transport of food if we had airships.

“There’s no place in the world that stands to benefit more than northern Canada.”

Located in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, Nunatsiaq News is dedicated to covering affairs in Nunavut and the Nunavik territory of Quebec since 1973. It has been a partner to ArcticToday and its predecessors since 2016.

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