If ABBA can come back to the stage after a 40-year break, there is nothing to say that the Airship cannot make a similar comeback 100 years after its initial heyday. Especially not if the lead singer of Iron Maiden (and pilot and CEO of Cardiff Airport), Bruce Dickinson, is one of its most impassioned supporters. He virtually joined the stage along with a host of other Airship enthusiasts and experts at the Dubai Expo 2020 on 11NOV21, to discuss the future of the silent, graceful, and above all, potentially 100% sustainable, floating clouds.
From the Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s first airship flight in 1900, to the unfortunate Hindenburg disaster in 1937, airships played both a key military and commercial role. Their heyday was between 1931 to 1937, when Zeppelin’s Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg airships regularly carried passengers across the Atlantic from Germany to North and South America. At the time, airships were twice as fast as the fastest ocean liners, and far more reliable than aircraft. An incredible feat when you think of cows’ intestines being used as helium gas bags, and the airships’ skin being made of cotton. Bruce Dickinson is convinced, it’s “an amazing technology, whose time is really about to come again, because we have the technology, we have the materials, we have all the things that the great airship designers of the past never had. [And] now we have an opportunity to demonstrate what an airship, or even a hybrid vehicle can do – and it can to more than a ship, more than a helicopter, more than an aircraft!”
Proving it with a North Pole expedition
“If you want to go to the North Pole, the airship is the way to go! You could sit, floating on a cloud with your feet dangling in the sky, having a drink, watching the beautiful world go by beneath you, and leaving no trace, no pollution, no excessive noise, no runways,” Bruce continues. “This is not just a dream, it’s a real aspiration and something that will happen.”
Ocean Sky Cruises is arranging just that – an expedition to the North Pole, to prove the viability of experiential travel in an airship and to trigger investments and acceptance of this alternative method of air travel and transport. Why the North Pole? Carl Oscar Lawaczek – Founder CEO of Ocean Sky Cruises, explains two reasons: one – the North Pole is ground zero for climate change – what happens in the Arctic subsequently happens in the rest of the world, and two: “No airship has ever landed on the North Pole before!” He points out that an airship already went to the North Pole in 1926, where all other attempts by boat, balloon, skis, and even plane had failed. Yet, under the organization of polar explorer and expedition leader Roald Amundsen, the Norge (Norway), as the airship – built by Italian Umberto Nobile, paid for by the American tycoon and explorer, Lincoln Ellsworth, and the Aero Club of Norway – was called, was unable to land at the time, as this would have required ground equipment and ground staff. That is not the case today and the Arctic is “one huge landing site, perfect for airships, as it is an open, level, frozen sea surface.”
The leading conservationist and first person to have walked to both the North and South Poles, Robert Swan, is the Ambassador and Expedition Leader for the OSC North Pole Airship expedition this time around. He sees the expedition as a symbol of hope, given that there is no more carbon-efficient vehicle than an airship. “Visiting the last great wilderness, we need to have very little impact. We are pioneering tourism with very little impact, providing education, inspiration and giving young people hope! Inspiring them towards solutions.”
A plethora of applications
Since 1997, after a pause of 60 years, there are exactly 5 commercially certified airships in the world today, Eckhard Breuer, CEO of ZEL Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik, explains – three belong to Goodyear in the U.S. and two to Zeppelin in Germany. The Zeppelin NT (new technology) airships are tiny in comparison to their historic ancestors, being able to hold 14 passengers, and designed for days trips of typically up to 10 hours. They fly at low altitudes of around 300 meters, at a slow speed of 60km/h, and are almost silent. They are used for tourist sightseeing trips, aerial advertising, and special operations. Yet, the other airship manufacturers on the panel – in particular, Atlas and Flying Whales - very much have a cargo focus. Both are working on large scale airships that can be used to carry outsize cargo, for humanitarian aid deliveries to remote areas, or even as flying hospitals, given their flexibility at being able to land anywhere.
Let’s be honest here!
Sebastien Bougon – Flying Whales founder, chairman & CEO, is brutally honest. Airships are “not a new idea! There have been several projects, and yet still, except Zeppelin, we don’t have any planes.” He points out that investors have not yet been convinced to “put money on the table to develop the technology, […] because we were not honest enough.” Honesty about the expensive costs of building an airship for tourism, which he estimates at “100 to 200 million euros minimum! And half a billion for large capacity cargo airship! A lot of money!” Weather conditions are another limiting factor, given that airships cannot operate in all weathers, and could spend as many as “100 – 120 days/year” in the bay. With regarding to sustainability, 100% carbon free is not yet possible due to fuel battery cells being too heavy still, hence the reliance on fuel-driven turbines initially. “Fuel first, hydrogen in a second step,” he outlines.
Eckhard Breuer agrees, stating two questions that need answering for investors to be interested: “How much money will it take to develop and certify these airships, and will the market be big enough? And how reliable can your schedule be? How can you guarantee that guests can fly on a certain day, given the weather dependability?"
400+ airships in the sky in 2030
Nevertheless, with a view to the next 10 years, the mood is optimistic. Carl Oscar Lawaczek says the “challenge is to get first large-scale airship certified, up in the air, ready to go, and an operational and commercial success. If the North Pole landing with a large-scale airship is successful and we prove the technology, then development will be extreme.” He points out that the eVTOL industry already sees major financial backing, despite not a single eVTOL aircraft in the air today: “Look at eVTOL industry. It’s valued at 50, 60, probably 80 billion dollars – has anyone seen any eVTOL yet? There is none! It’s what the market expects what the eVTOL will do for mobility. I would say, we’re 5 years behind eVTOL. The LTA industry is still very small today, despite hundreds of millions of dollars going into building LTA vehicles. In 5 years, investments will be flowing in, and, if all goes well, we will have more than 100 airships in 10 years,” he is convinced.
Alan Weston, CEO of LTA, also predicts building over 100 airships in 10 years. His company is very close to the first flight of its completely carbon-free Pathfinder 1 airship, and focused on mass production or parts and assemblies, as it looks to build the “biggest thing to fly – bigger than a rocket” – an electric airship with the capability of over 200t lift.
Sebastien Bougon is certain: “I am very optimistic about 10 years! It IS happening! Huge progress happening. In 10 years, you will see large capacity airships. We have already signed 20 contracts with industries,” among them promises to deliver first airships in 2025 from the Bordeaux, France assembly hall to Canada. Gennadiy Verba – CEO Atlas LTA Advanced Technology, predicts that his company will have built 200 airships in 10 years from now, and underlines that while other transport nodes will not be replaced, that carbon emissions in the air are just one aspect of pollution. The construction of runways and airports also add to a negative environmental impact, that is not required in the case of airships. They have “the freedom to land anywhere - on land, on water, on any type of soil or surface!”
The panel is clear: 10 years from now, we will be living in a new era of transportation, and given that together, tourism and transportation account for 20% of carbon emissions, that move is a good thing.
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