This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail.
By Heather Exner-Pirot, September 6, 2023
The Goodyear blimp. The zeppelin. The Hindenburg.
Mention airships, and those icons are the average Canadian’s frame of reference – if they have one at all. But the concept that we thought peaked a century ago is making a comeback, with investors and researchers circling.
Airships require very little fuel, can carry heavy payloads, have long ranges, and are able to take off and land vertically, or not land at all. The vast distances, hefty cargo costs and limited infrastructure of Northern Canada are a fantastic setting for airships. A new era for airships is on the horizon.
An airship is a lighter-than-air aircraft that uses helium or hydrogen to lift it off the ground. Whereas blimps are essentially a balloon that can deflate, airships are rigid (they have a frame) and dirigible (they are powered and steerable).
If we’ve been able to go decades without airships, why bring them back?
One attraction is their light carbon footprint, a huge advantage in a world striving for net zero. Generating very few emissions, they can fill the gap between sea cargo, which is slower, and air freight, which is more expensive.
But it’s the applications for remote communities and mining sites that are most tantalizing. In Canada’s North, just building a gravel road costs upward of $3-million a kilometre, and even more to maintain, especially in areas with melting permafrost. But exorbitant air freight costs make everything from building materials to vehicles to non-perishable foods unaffordable for many, while sea lift comes just once a year in many northern waters, and only for communities that are on the coast.
Imagine a world-class deposit of rare earths in Northern Quebec, hundreds of kilometres from tidewater. Getting a road permit requires consent from affected Indigenous communities, who might have concerns about the effects on caribou and other migratory species. Once that’s obtained, you need to raise hundreds of millions of dollars and take several years to build the road before a single ounce of ore is ever sold to market. Then you have to organize shipping from the nearest port through waters that are ice-choked or covered most of the year, while also accounting for consequences on marine mammals. Once the mine reaches its natural end of life, you then have to remediate, or clean up, the road at high cost.
These challenges illustrate why we have limited mining activity in Northern Canada, and what we do have is primarily high-value, low-weight diamonds, gold and silver. Airships offer the promise of harvesting more of the North’s critical minerals, at lower cost and less environmental impact than what the current options allow.
Potential 21st-century military applications are also being reviewed. As Canada and the United States look for new and better ways to advance intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in the Arctic through NORAD, the airship’s long range, capacity to operate unmanned and ability to carry lots of monitoring equipment are very attractive. Imagine them cruising over the Bering Strait or Northwest Passage detecting and tracking – and thus deterring – suspicious activities.
Funding for an airship renaissance is already happening. Last year, the government of Quebec invested $55-million in the French airship company Flying Whales, which has set up a Quebec subsidiary. Flying Whales recently entered into an agreement with Canadian North, the Inuit-owned airline which is Nunavut’s largest, to jointly address design and operational issues in the Arctic. And Transport Canada helped fund a study for a cargo airship strategy for Northern Canada, which was completed in May. Its conclusion? Cargo airships could “reduce the cost and improve transportation services in the North” and “could be competitive without any public subsidy.”
The modern airship boom is in its early stages, and still has to make the difficult leap from startup to market. A regulatory framework must be developed in lockstep. But it has deep pockets on its side. One company, LTA, is funded by billionaire and Google co-founder Sergey Brin. His interest centres on the humanitarian potential of airships to deliver aid to disaster zones with damaged or non-existent infrastructure. LTA’s prototype Pathfinder I is on the verge of being unveiled for testing.
Few countries will benefit from an airship revival more than Canada. We should be ambitious, rather than skeptical, in advancing this technology to support our northern communities, resource development and Arctic security.
Heather Exner-Pirot is director of energy, natural resources and environment at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.