China is betting big on airships for freight with a partnership with French company Flying Whales. Better access to remote areas and big cost savings are the reason, but will airships open a path to cleaner air transport?
According to China Daily, air freight volume in China is growing much faster than the rest of the world. Chinese air freight volume has gone up over 8% year-over-year while global air freight only went up around 2%. Not only does this help with manufacturing export items like mobile phones, but it also helps improve quality of life for the population with better access to fresh food from both other parts of the large country and abroad.
This does, however, present challenges. Rural areas and smaller cities still have trouble accepting large cargo planes, leaving the freight to large diesel trucks. Despite improving air cargo volumes, 80% of the country’s cargo still moves by truck. Even going directly from origin to destination, it can be hard to move large items to the country’s most rural areas on roads built for cars and trucks.
There’s also the environmental impact. Air travel is fast and convenient, but contributes big to climate change. Trucks, moving large loads, aren’t much better.
All of these reasons probably led China Aviation Industry General Aircraft Co., Ltd. (also known as AVIC) to partner with French firm Flying Whales (images from that company are above) on an innovative cargo airship. Aviation Week lays out all of the interesting details. Even under normal conditions, the airship needs about 1.5 megawatts to resist winds and move safely, but extreme winds while loading or unloading can require over 3 megawatts of power in short bursts.
Rather than include less-efficient internal combustion engines capable of generating that full 3 MW load, they worked with an ultracapacitor company to provide power for those short bursts so the airship can use much smaller engines. Overall, this allows the airships to travel across the large country and beyond using much less fuel than other modes of transport.
The biggest advantage is flexibility. Instead of congesting roads with oversize loads or breaking down large items for air transport, the airships will be able to take items directly from the origin or port to the destination. Loads can be up to 60 tons, so everything from wind turbine blades to modular housing can be delivered straight to the final destination.
While airships aren’t likely to compete with the speed and convenience of jet airplanes for human passengers, they may prove to be not only competitive, but much more environmentally friendly for large cargo. If this works for China, it might be adopted more widely in other countries.