Intelligent Energy

Bringing back the blimp

Bringing back the blimp

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One way to get gas-guzzling trucks off the road would be to put their cargo on more eco-friendly blimps. A British company is doing just that, in Canada.

One way to get gas-guzzling trucks off road would be to return to the future and put their cargo on more eco-friendly blimps.

That idea might be far-fetched for urban and developed areas, but it holds water – or air, if you will – in remote locations.

Hybrid Air Vehicles of Cranfield, England, is on the case.

It has agreed to provide up to 45 “airships” to Canada’s Discovery Air Innovations, a specialist aviation company that serves mining, oil and gas companies in remote areas.

Unlike the infamous hydrogen-powered Hindenburg blimp which burst into flames in New Jersey in 1937, HAV’s airship combines air and helium, an inert gas that does not explode the way hydrogen does.

HAV’s has reshaped the design from the classic “blimp” form into a flatter, wing-like oval that assists lift – the quasi-wing shape helps explain the “hybrid” in HAV’s name.

Some fine print: the craft does use four engines powered by conventional aviation fuel to help steer it. Still, an HAV spokesman told SmartPlanet that it would reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by up to 75% compared to cargo planes and helicopters, and that the reduction could even be higher depending on the route and the mission. The engines could eventually use biofuel, too.

Another environmental advantage: the HAV airship can go up and down hovercraft style, eliminating the need for runways.

Never mind for now that HAV will be serving the fossil fuel industry – a fact that might offset all of it CO2 advantages. The craft and others like it could conceivably serve many other purposes, such as transporting goods in more built-up areas (a SmartPlanet reader commented on such a possibility yesterday, in fact, after our story on VW’s single seat EV.)

And HAV notes that the airship could be put to use for disaster relief.

The deal with Discovery Air comes about 8 months after HAV and partner Northrop Grumman won a $517 million contract to provide a similar vehicle to the U.S. Army for use in Afghanistan. That airship is expected to go into service next year.

The agreement with Discovery Air marks HAV’s first contract with the commercial sector.

Gary Elliott, HAV’s CEO, told the Financial Times that each commercial airship would cost between $30m and $50m to build, and that the company hopes to put the first commercial version into service in 2014. The company is building them in huge hangars in Cardington, England.

CGI Images: Hybrid Air Vehicles

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure