Robin Young of Amur Minerals Corp. wants to dig for nickel and copper in Siberia where forbidding winters and poor roads make it tough to haul in equipment. His best option: fly it in with zeppelins.
Otherwise the London-traded explorer would have to spend about $150 million building a 350-kilometer (218-mile) road to truck in heavy construction gear, Chief Executive Officer Young said in an interview. Peter Hambro, executive chairman of gold producer Petropavlovsk Plc, said he invested in a maker of the airships and foresees the mining industry adopting them.
“To build a bridge to take a Toyota Land Cruiser isn’t horrifically expensive,” Hambro said. “To build a bridge that will take a Caterpillar 777 is very, very expensive,” he said, referring to the 87-ton dump truck used in mines.
Zeppelin and blimp manufacturers need mining contracts to creep back to life, 76 years after the Hindenburg burned and crashed in New Jersey, ending most buyer interest for decades. With better designs and a buoyant gas that can’t ignite, makers such as Worldwide Aeros Corp. and Hybrid Air Vehicles of the U.K. say they’re negotiating their first sales to the $960 billion mining industry to complement truck and rail transport.
So far, rejections have been plenty. OAO GMK Norilsk Nickel looked at zeppelins to transport equipment to build a mine in Siberia a decade ago and decided instead to use conventional airplanes. It later built a fleet of icebreaker vessels to ship its nickel out through the Yenisei River in Russia’s far north.
Polyus Gold International Ltd., the largest Russian gold producer, has considered using the zeppelins as an option to deliver heavy equipment to its Natalka project in the country’s far east, spokesman Sergey Lavrinenko said. “It was rejected, though, as at the time we couldn’t find a suitable offer on the market.”
About 10 years ago Hybrid Air of Cranfield, England, built its first blimp, which unlike a zeppelin, doesn’t have an internal frame. It was to be used for advertising and documentary filming. The company sold its second airship, with a 5-ton cargo capacity, to the U.S. Army for surveillance in Afghanistan though the army is returning it in December because of budget constraints.
Petropavlovsk’s Hambro said he would consider ordering one in the future for his business in Russia’s far east. Hybrid Air has developed and tested its non-rigid craft capable of performing in storm winds and conditions typical of Siberia and the Canadian tundra, spokesman Chris Daniels said. Those are the most likely regions where a lighter-than-air vehicle might get used.
To be sure, both Hybrid Air and Worldwide Aeros need to pass flight tests to get authority to fly their airships. Hybrid Air is expecting to get its certification within two to three years, Daniels said.
Hybrid Air is in talks with two companies that supply transport services to mining companies in Canada and expects to sign orders in the next couple of months for delivery as early as 2016, Daniels said. The airship will contain a rigid structure underneath the inflated canopy to carry 48 passengers and the cargo, he said.
For investors, the option of an explorer like Amur using an airship rather than raising funds to pay for a road before starting production is attractive, said John Meyer, an analyst at SP Angel Corporate Finance LLP in London.
“Amur’s project has a huge value, but the upfront funding and the fact it’s in Russia means that it’s difficult to finance,” Meyer said. “The ability to use an airship will completely transform the value of the company. They can start producing before spending all that extra money.” Amur, based in the British Virgin Islands, is named after the region of Siberia where it explores for nickel and copper.
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