From Kyle Hopkins –
Stay with me on this. What if fuel arrived in remote Alaska villages by airship instead of barge?
What if you didn’t need ice roads to distant oil and gas projects because you could fly in your heavy equipment latched to a giant dirigible?
Those are some of the ideas behind a two-day meeting called “Cargo Airships for Northern Operations” that started this morning at UAA. How pie-in-the-sky are they? Hard to say, but Pete Worden, director for NASA's Ames Research Center in California is a believer:
“By the end of this decade, there will be a reasonable number of air ships – maybe tens, maybe hundreds, used in many places in the U.S., particularly Alaska,” Worden said.
Here's what a modern airship looks like, according to Montreal-based Discovery Air Innovations, one of the sponsors of the meeting.
The company has agreed to buy a fleet of so-called hybrid ships from Hybrid Air Vehicles of Cranfield, England. The aircraft get half of their lift from helium, another 40 percent from good old aeronautical lift – they're shaped like a bloated wing – and use “vector thrust” engines that run on jet fuel.
“We could use them in Alaska … wherever the customers is that doesn’t have the existing infrastructure,” said Stephen “Fig” Newton, director of business development.
Potential customers are Alaska oil and gas companies, Newton said. Not to mention rural communities. Picture a flying health clinic.
“You could just fly in … land on the water and have the patients come to you,” Newton said.
Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwel, who launched the meeting with a speech, acknowledged the giggle factor.
But the state is at least considering the possibility that airships could be used to solve some of Alaska’s longstanding transportation riddles.
“The state spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build the Red Dog road,” Treadwell said. “To the extent that this technology can be a short cut, that’s something that could save the state billions over years to come.”
Treadwell said the state won’t get heavily involved in the airship efforts during the research and development phase. “What Alaska’s job now is to offer itself as a proving ground.”
For now, many questions remain.
There’s lots of promising talk, but nothing’s been proven. Airship advocates say the vessels run cleaner than competing aircraft, but consider all the certification and paperwork necessary before even cargo flights are allowed. (It helps that we're talking helium airships, not hydrogen.)
Maybe most importantly, can the airships withstand Alaska's extreme winds and cold?
Look for a proper story later tonight.