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Blimps in the Last Frontier!

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Thursday, I attended the Cargo Airships for Northern Operations Workshop
.  That’s right, the Blimp Convention!

Earlier this year, I reported that a blimp was coming to Alaska this July for the first time since the 1920s. And not just any blimp – we’re talking the 200-foot long Skyship 600. Even though, to my disappointment, it was not coming up to give people rides, I had still planned on trying to blog the event and get some pictures if it came to Anchorage. Sadly, that never happened.

But the dream is not dead, my friends. And there are many smart and motivated people out there from all over the world who are trying to make blimps a reality in Alaska, for a variety of interesting reasons.

The two-day conference hosted presenters from NASA, the University, rural Alaska Native corporations, cargo airship developers and operators, scientists, and engineers from the United States and Europe. Zombies would have dined well there.

It turns out that the ability to float over the earth for extended periods of time has a wide variety of applications, many of which had never occurred to me. And the challenges exist in equal measure to the opportunities.

Lockheed Martin was wrapping up a presentation talking about using airships to transport cargo to roadless areas where proposed mining projects were located.

“Most mining projects take about 20 years to get permitted,” the Lockheed guy said. “But 80% of that is road permitting.” So, if airships could be used successfully instead of roads, he posited, the environmental impact would be much less, and we could “bypass 18 years of road permitting and get the mining project started in 2 years instead of 20 years.”

Just thinking about that made me wince a little.

There was no doubt that many of the applications of the airships were development related, but the idea of shoving a major mining permit through in two years was sobering. I thought of Pebble Mine again.

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PANEL DISCUSSIONS: ACTIONS FOR AIRSHIP INCENTIVES

Next up was a panel including Rep. Bob Herron. One question asked how the airship industry could get Alaskans excited about the concept of airships in our skies. I thought he nailed it.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. Alaska history is about air. Any innovation in air transport will naturally be embraced by Alaskans. Of course it has to be demonstrated, but because we are an air transport state, it will not be a hard sell. In the Lower 48 there are more options. We have some roads, but not many. We are an air transport state and I think Alaskans will be responsive to it.”

One impassioned audience member stood during the question period exclaiming, “This is new! Nobody has done this before. Somebody has to be a Queen Isabella and get Columbus across the edge of the world, and the only one with the money to be the queen is the state.”

So, will the state step up and provide funding for airships? Herron says yes, but there are steps. First convince AIDA, he said. Then, that will convince the governor, and that will convince the legislature. “ The State will support it. The legislature will support it,” he said confidently,  “but it’s new news to them.”

Monica James, President of Yulista Holding Company talked about growing an employment base in the state. She explained to the airship people that they’ll be asked about how many Alaskans they employ. “Donlin (Gold) will need a ton of employees. They’re going through permitting phase right now. They have a team educating 12-year olds that opportunity will be here and why a career in the gold mine field is important.” Get them while they’re young, she said, and suggested a partnership with the University system.

She said that as soon as the airships prove they can deliver, there will be opportunities for cargo applications using airship technology.  “We could grow massive amounts of potatoes and export to China or Thailand, or whoever wants potatoes,” she mused. “I think as the PR goes out, we could get new ideas that individuals could bring to their cargo needs.”

Brent Petrie, of the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative (AVEC)
 pointed out that there are only 800 miles of high voltage transmission lines in the entire state of Alaska, which is incredibly limited. “We can’t do mines or fisheries or agriculture projects without more power. The airship might help construction of these facilities where it’s a problem. We can delineate the scope of a project, and whether it can it be done better with an airship.”

Robert Ragar of Everts Air Cargo wrapped up the panel discussion. “Without a doubt the airship is going to improve our well-being. Any way you think about it, it will create new shipments, enable construction and energy projects that don’t occur today because of the cost. It is going to solve so many issues. It’s exciting. Fixed wing, and barge, and rail are absolutely limited. We know those well. The airship is going to break loose a whole other mode of transport, and not just in Alaska but all across the world.”

In just a few short hours my notion of blimp rides at the state fair seemed naive and shortsighted at best. Airships, it seems, could be a catalyst for development projects across the state, with all the good, and bad that comes with it.

AIRSHIPS FOR SCIENTIFIC APPLICATIONS

Billy Connor, Director of thef Alaska University Transportation Center & Arctic Engineering Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks spoke next.

Finally, we got to the uses of blimps that don’t have to do with mining and resource exploration and development, and there are many.

Airships are outstanding platforms for aerial surveys because of their slow air speed and low altitude abilities. There is little of the vibration found in airplanes and helicopters, and the flight is smooth and controlled offering the ability for higher resolution and higher accuracy for all kinds of scientific monitoring. They can also hover in a relatively stationary manner for long periods of time using thrusters or tethers. They can even reach altitudes of 70,000 feet, skimming the edge of the stratosphere, above wind and weather, and allowing for wide area airborne surveillance from the very edge of space.

Because they are quiet, and can carry heavy equipment, they are extremely effective in monitoring wildlife without disturbing the animals. They have been used not only to measure the activities of land-based animals, but the abilities of certain instrumentation to gather data from below the surface of water has made airships the perfect vehicle to study dolphins, manatees, dungongs, whales and other marine life.

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Airships can also be used to gain information which provides accurate ways to map areas for road development or other engineering projects that need clear information about slope stability, risk of landslides, delineation of wetlands, and vegetation. Current ground-based monitoring systems physically can’t get the whole picture. Airships could provide a full view.

Given all this, airships can be used in forestry and wetland applications, agriculture, wildlife research and management, geophysical mapping, aviation safety hazards like volcanic ash, and offer an unparalleled remote sensing platform for photography, pollution monitoring and other means of collecting scientific information.

Satellites are expensive, and therefore have limited use. Imagine what relatively inexpensive airships might mean for studies of climate change, sea ice cover and movement, arctic wildlife monitoring, and even providing a stationary platform to act as a relay for communications in areas which are highly challenged in that area.

Just as airships will mean an opening up of vast areas for resource development, and infrastructure projects, so will it mean having abilities to see and know things about our world, and to communicate effectively what we find, and share this information with the rest of the world.

THE SKYSHIP 600 

Francis Govers of Skyship Services spoke about his main focus – to bring the Skyship 600 to Alaska, and have one or more airships up to Alaska on a permanent basis.

This is the blimp I’d been dreaming about since my last report. At 200 feet long and 68 feet tall, it’s twice the size of a blue whale, and sort of shaped like one. It can hold 2000 pounds of payload, more than any airship today, and has been used around the world for a variety of projects.

The gondola holds 2 crew and 13 passengers. It has 2 255-horsepower engines, can go a maximum speed of 30 knots, and can reach an altitude of 6000 feet, for 18 hours. And yes, there is a bathroom.

Each seat is both window and aisle, and looks extremely comfortable.

Govers made sure to talk about the outstanding safety record of sky ships, pointing out that the last time a passenger was killed on one was in 1937. We all know what that was. It must be difficult to have the first thing most people think of when they hear “blimp” be “Oh the humanity!” and a vision of the Hindenberg.

But we’ve come a long way since then, like using a gas that doesn’t explode in a fiery ball (helium vs. hydrogen).

Govers was excited about the proposition of getting to Alaska, and even had a map of the best route to get here from Jacksonville, Florida, all the way through the inside passage and to the north slope.

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They’ve been approached by oil companies, he said, with a list of applications that airships could help. They are required to have surveys of fish resources, surface water, cultural areas, lakes, birds, mammals, meteorology, noise, water usage, snow cover, wetlands, wildlife habitat and visual landscape.

And just when I began to give up all hope of blimp rides, Govers mentioned one of the things airships could do for Alaska is to boost tourism!  Imagine the possibilities of a quiet, low-flying, green form of transportation whose specialty is flying low and slow. My camera was itching in the seat next to me, and as I typed my notes from the seminar, this just snuck in there:

I WANT TO GO!!!!

WHAT ABOUT THE WEATHER?

So, now that we’ve looked at all the possibilities that airships can bring, there’s that one nagging question that anyone whose ever lived or flown in Alaska wants to know. What happens when weather kicks up? What do you do when you take off, and the wind gets faster than 20 knots, and it’s not safe to land?

The first part of the answer, is that you know your weather well and you keep track of what’s likely to occur. That’s where the next speaker, Dr. Ananthakrishna Sarma, the Senior Scientist of Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) came in.

He would have been the zombies’ main course. He had software, and weather algorithms and mapping and charting and plotting with triangles, and trajectories melded with Google Earth, and let’s just say, if you’re flying an airship, and you do what he says, you’re in pretty good hands. Plus, his weather algorithm will give you 25% fuel savings for blimps, and 3% for 757s.

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But weather data is only as good as its collection frequency, which can be up to 12 hours in Alaska. So, you need a contingency plan. And your contingency plan is this:

You wait.

There is generally 12 hours worth of fuel on board, and if you “loiter,” as you can in a blimp, you can stay aloft for up to 50 hours until it’s safe to land. For any kind of regular airship service, a landing dock would be necessary every 150 to 200 miles at which would be a mast for the blimp to be tied off. The mast is stable in winds up to 100 knots. And if all else fails there’s the option of 16 guy wires, and a ginormous auguring machine. And it only needs helium every six weeks.

Finally, the moment we were all waiting for – the grand finale of the conference.

THE RACING BLIMP

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Andre Sobotta, a student at Heinrich-Heine-Universität in Düsseldorf, Germany, gave a demonstration of his racing blimp. After all the “low and slow” talk, it was fun to think of blimps made to go fast. Sobotta’s blimp had small fins, and was controlled remotely. He flew it around the auditorium, explaining that this was the slowest the blimp could fly. The confined space of the auditorium required some attention to navigate at high speed, and there was a close encounter with a woman in a pink jacket, whom I realized shortly after the near miss was Sen. Lesil McGuire.

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He raced the blimp until it ran low on batteries, and then tried for one last lap which turned out to be an optimistic, but ill-fated bet. The blimp began to lose altitude, and passed about 2 feet over my head, and crash landed into the seats two rows behind me, one of its engines dangling in a sad way. As Sobotta ran from the stage to assess the damage, I wondered what would happen if I yelled out, “Oh, the humanity!” It seemed like the thing to do at the unexpected crash of a German blimp. But never knowing if others would share my sense of humor, I kept my mouth shut, as the wounded blimp was tenderly escorted out of the room.

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And there you have it. Alaska airships, the benefits, the challenges, and the potential for blimp rides!

Our skies may look very different in the coming years, opening up highways in the air where none exist on the ground, and the opportunity to see our land from above in ways that have never been possible before.

 

Comments

comments

Comments
8 Responses to “Blimps in the Last Frontier!”
  1. Ivan says:

    large slow balloon filled with gold, hmmm.

  2. Zyxomma says:

    I love blimps. Many years ago, I was freelancing for a law firm that did the venture capital deal for Airships International. They needed someone to do a lot of overtime for them, and asked me. I agreed, PROVIDED that, if the deal was completed in a timely fashion, they could arrange for me to get a ride on a blimp, something I’ve always wanted to do. The deal got done, but they reneged on my ride. Maybe I’ll get it in Alaska someday. Jeanne, you’re not the only nerd who wants a blimp ride. I do, too.

  3. Mo says:

    Wow! Thank you for reporting on this. A possible future blimp ride! Sign me up!

  4. benlomond2 says:

    hhhmmm… your high winds will require hangers for the blimps to wait it out in ,, not going to survive them being tied to a mast… that or send them all to Washington state for the winter…

  5. Alaska Pi says:

    Pffft! on 2 year gold mine permitting. Yay! on airship possibilities!
    Need to read more carefully but sounds really cool. Glad you went AKM.

  6. mike from iowa says:

    You got all those pesky mountain ranges,all those violent shifting winds,windshear,ice,forests,bogs,skeeters,migrating waterfowl by the millions,rugged individual loons who might take potshots at UFOS,and even if you could permit mines in 2 years you still have to build those pesky roads or backpack out the minerals. No problems.

  7. AKMagpie says:

    Forgive me, but all I can think of at the moment is: Up in the air, junior birdsmen! Will read more closely later. This may be a good idea, but I wonder if it isn’t too limited by weather and temperature. New ideas are always welcome.

    • AKMagpie says:

      After reading more carefully I don’t want these blimps to make destroying the environment any easier. I’m will you Alaska PI, large raspberries to the Pebble !ine. This would probably go the way of the off-shore drilling rig debacle. Get the state to underwrite it then bye-bye project. Barley anyone?

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