As winter road seasons continue to become more unpredictable, a number of companies and governments are examining the possibility of transporting goods to remote communities by airships.
One of the companies involved in examining the use of hybrid airships for transport in northern Ontario is First Nations owned and operated Wasaya Airways.
“Our interest has always been to keep abreast of what is happening in the region so we are not left out,” said Wasaya Airways President and CEO Tom Morris.
Wasaya is working with a Toronto-based company, Solar Ship, to test a hybrid solar powered airship for use in supplying northern communities. “They’re not really balloons; it’s more like a solar ship,” Morris said about the hybrid airship being developed in Toronto.
Morris said the solar-powered emission-free airship could deliver materials and goods at a lower cost than other means of transport, but there are still a “lot of unknowns” about the project.
“As you move forward with the project, you get to know what the performance is going to be,” Morris said. “I don’t know what the size of the Solar Ship would be if it’s going to be able to haul 6,000 pounds from Thunder Bay to Pickle Lake.”
The federal government has also been looking into the use of airships, with the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities making three recommendations on airships in its Innovative Transportation Technologies report.
The first recommendation was that to avoid risks related to a potential failure of an unproven hybrid air vehicle technology, Public Works and Government Services Canada should consider a “pilot project,” involving the transport of non-urgent goods to remote destinations.
The committee report said such a test run should only happen on a commercial basis, at a price competitive with alternatives, when the government has a need. Payment should only follow successful delivery.
Other recommendations of the report included making provisions for allowing air transport companies to bid on federal contracts once the technology is proven safe, and pushing for international regulations for airships and hybrid air vehicle technology.
In 2011, a University of Manitoba professor released his own report on airships, claiming that the technology may be the most efficient and effective answer to shorter winter road seasons.
“The payload would be the same as a tractor trailer, but an airship would be faster, more fuel efficient and able to land practically anywhere, removing the need for expensive road construction and maintenance,” said Barry Prentice, the U of M professor, at the time.
However, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug Chief Donny Morris noted that regardless of the use of airships, “one-lane” winter roads would still be needed for community members who drive out to resupply their household supplies.
“Communities will be under pressure from the people that travel, that are given the opportunity to hit the highway shopping for your own personal dry goods, things that last you a year,” Chief Morris said. “I think bands will be obligated to do at least a single lane out of the communities.”
The technology also remains unproven. One of the first Canadian companies to get onboard with airships, Discovery Air out of the Northwest Territories, let its tentative deal to buy a fleet of hybrid airships expire in mid-2012, noting it no longer wanted to invest in the airships. That came only a year after the company had announced it was working with Hybrid Air Vehicles Limited, a British manufacturer, to design an airship for Canada’s North.
For Morris and Wasaya however, the possibilities of airships and hybrid air vehicles have to at least be examined, as Morris said, since the project could affect the future of the north.
“(Solar Ship CEO Jay Godsall) had come to us about supporting them on their application and we agreed to provide some space once the demo flight happens,” Morris said. “We’ll provide some space at our hangar at one of our facilities and then the test flight will happen from here, maybe with a vehicle or poundage, to do a test flight from Thunder Bay to Sioux Lookout.”
Although plans had originally called for a test flight this upcoming August, Morris said the test flight has been pushed back to August 2014.
The Solar Ship has the properties of both airplanes and dirigibles, but it doesn’t require mooring. It is designed as a heavier-than-air airship filled with slightly less helium than required to lift it off the ground. Its solar panels provide enough power, backed up by a battery system, to propel the airship forward and up into the air.
According to the company’s website, Godsall first became interested in airships as a teenager in the 1980s, when he met with people from Africa who had transportation problems. He first started up an airship business in the early 1990s, but couldn’t attract funding to get it off the ground.
In 2004, he approached James DeLaurier, a University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies professor, who showed him a model of a hybrid airship. The two men joined forces in 2006 and DeLaurier signed on as the company’s chief aerospace engineer.
Information on the airship can be found at solarship.com.
The Alaska Department of Transportation, in collaboration with NASA Ames Research Center, has also been looking into the use of airships. The northern state has planned the 3rd Cargo Airships for Northern Operations Workshop, scheduled for July 10-12 in Anchorage, Alaska.