Dr. Barry Prentice: The Business Case for Airships

On September 21, 2023, Dr. Barry Prentice, Professor of Supply Chain Management at the University of Manitoba, and an advocate for lighter-than-air (LTA) technology, spoke to the Heritage Group. His topic was “Cargo Airship Fuel Transport: Canadian Shield Case Study” which focused on the potential use of airships to support northern and remote communities in Manitoba and Northwest Ontario.

Dr. Prentice and other economists have been gathering data over the past decade or more
to support a business case for air ships as an alternative to ice roads in winter and expensive air flights to support fuel and commodities needs in the north.

There are over 35,000 persons, mainly indigenous, living in 182 often remote communities in Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario. Housing is overcrowded with 40% of housing occupied with more persons than the house was intended to accommodate. Food costs in the north are 2.5 to 3 times higher than in southern communities.

Ice roads in question

$8.7 million is spent each year to construct 2,400 km of ice roads that disappear after six weeks

Becca8383, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ice roads are typically open for only four-to-six weeks a year. Transport trucks can move at only 15 mph and one kilometre spacing is required between trucks. The government spends $8.7 million each year to construct 2,400 km of ice roads which essentially disappear after six weeks with nothing to show for the construction expense. Road construction, which is another option to support these communities, represents about $3 million per kilometre. As many communities are up to hundreds of kilometres away from urban centres the cost of road construction would be substantial.

With anticipated climate change impacts, it is expected ice roads may not be a delivery option within one or two decades. This would leave trains, planes and barges as the only delivery methods available to remote communities, all of which are a costly option. Trains do not reach all communities, many communities have limited landing strips for smaller planes only, barges are seasonal, and the costs of permanent road construction are prohibitive.

A cost-effective alternative

Cross Lake, population 2,000, requires about one million litres of fuel annually

Currently, the biggest need for northern communities is fuel. A northern or remote community needs to acquire sufficient fuel for about one year for generators, vehicles, heating and other needs. For example, Cross Lake community, with about 2,000 population, requires about one million litres of fuel annually based on the study. Trucks and planes cannot deliver such large quantities of fuel at one time, so it requires additional trips and
the use of seasonal barges. This is also true for commodities such as building materials, vehicles and equipment.

Although there is a substantial start-up cost of more than a few hundred million dollars for (a) airship hangers; (b) transhipment locations (e.g. Thompson and Pickle Lake); and (c) about 20 community landing sites, air ships could operate year-round. Amortized over several years, air ships can generally offer a more cost-effective option than other delivery modes.

BASI – The Canadian Proposed Airship Model

There are three sizes of air ships that could be constructed: 30 tonne, 60 tonne, and 100 tonne: the larger the ship, the lower the cost for commodity shipment over time. For example, a 30-tonne ship would cost 0.47 cent/kilogram to operate, while a 100-tonne ship would lower cost to 0.26 cents/kilogram. However, the larger the ship the more cost there would be to construct it including hangers and landing sites. Even the smallest air ship is several hundred feet long and more than a few stories high. The optimum air ship size for Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario was identified as a 30 tonne. To satisfactorily service all the communities involved would require three, 30-tonne air ships. The primary freight, at least until communities are able to transition to natural energy sources such as solar, wind and geo-thermal, would be fuel. Fuel would represent 25% of the freight, food would represent 25%, and building materials, equipment and vehicles would represent the remainder.

Transport Trucks from Transshipment Centre Offloading to Airship

An additional consideration for a business case is whether air ships could serve mining sites, some of which cannot be operated because of their inaccessibility and the cost of shipping ore. For example, if airships deliver commodities to communities, they could also pick up ore for refining on the return trip because they would be empty. This adds to the
business case.

Given the enormous expense of living in northern and remote communities, and the projection that those expenses will increase, air ships seem to be a viable option for future freight conveyance which should be explored seriously further.

Hurdles to overcome

Hindenburg on fire at the mooring mast of Lakehurst, New Jersey, 6 May 1937.

As initial air ship manufacturing and associated costs are significant, an initiative like this would also require government support and likely investment. There is still reluctance on government’s part to consider air ships as a northern and remote transportation option. There is also the issue of pilot and air ship certification for air worthiness and safety. Some of the reluctance to consider air ships might still be due to the explosion of the hydrogen-fueled “Hindenburg” air ship in 1937, which fostered subsequent reluctance to utilize hydrogen and brought passenger air ship travel to an abrupt end.

The business case study concluded:

  1. A fleet of three, 30-ton lift, cargo airships could provide regular, year-round, delivery service for fuel to the north at the same cost as tractor-trailers over winter roads.
  2. A slow transition to the use of the airships will proceed as population grows and storage tanks are discontinued.
  3. If the business model for transporting fuel by cargo airships is profitable, then exceptional profits are available hauling everything else, while offering much lower transportation costs than presently available.

For those interested in additional information, here is a link to an article by Dr. Prentice.

Categories: All, Gatherings, Guest Speakers

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