Blimps May Be The Key To Low-Carbon Short-Range Air Travel

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When your grandparents were born, commercial air travel was in its infancy. Today, about 100,000 flights a day move an estimated 6 million people from one place to another around the globe. The convenience of flying has made air travel a part of daily life for many, but it comes with an environmental cost.

Like any device that burns fossil fuel, a jet engine leaves a trail of carbon dioxide in its wake. What’s worse is that much of it is deposited high in the atmosphere, far away from the forests and oceans that act as carbon sinks for lower-level emissions. The pandemic and the internet have conspired to reduce air travel considerably over the past 18 months, but as more people get vaccinated and the fear of infection decreases, the urge to go places by airplane will increase and lead to more carbon pollution in our skies.

According to The Guardian, Hybrid Air Vehicles, located in Bedford, UK, wants to change all that by ferrying people between cities that are 200 to 300 miles apart using its Airlander 10 lighter-than-air blimp. Here are a few reasons a blimp might actually be a serious alternative to travelling by jet. First, it can take off and land from virtually any flat piece of land. No more long drives to airports located 20 miles or more outside major cities.

Even though the Airlander 10 only wafts along at a top speed of about 60 miles per hour, when you subtract the time needed to get to and from airports, the total time needed to go from Seattle to Vancouver, Oslo to Stockholm, or Liverpool to Belfast will be about the same as a journey aboard a commercial jetliner. And if the artist’s renderings of the Airlander 10 interior are to be believed, passengers will travel in much greater comfort than is possible with today’s flying cattle cars that measure legroom in Ângström units.

Courtesy of Hybrid Air Vehicles

Second, and more importantly, the company claims the carbon footprint per passenger of its airships would be about 4.5 kg — less than a tenth that of a typical journey by jet airplane. (Future battery-electric powered blimps would have no direct carbon emissions.)

Tom Grundy, HAV’s chief executive, tells The Guardian the Airlander 10 is like a fast ferry. “This isn’t a luxury product, it’s a practical solution to challenges posed by the climate crisis.” He says the company’s target market is the 47% of regional flights that connect cities less than 230 miles apart. “We’ve got aircraft designed to travel very long distances going very short distances, when there is actually a better solution,” he says. “How much longer will we expect to have the luxury of travelling these short distances with such a big carbon footprint? It’s an early and quick win for the climate, especially when you use this to get over an obstacle like water or hills.”

Grundy adds the company is close to choosing a location to manufacture the Airlander 10, which he hopes will be in the UK. About 500 people will be directly involved in building the craft, while another 1,500 jobs will be created in the supply chain. The company plans to produce 12 blimps a year beginning in 2025 and expects to sell 265 of them over the following 20 years. It says independent estimates put the value of the airship market at $50 billion during that time.

HAV says it is in discussions with a number of airlines and expected to announce partnerships and airline customers in the next few months. The company has already signed a deal to deliver an airship to luxury Swedish travel firm OceanSky Cruises, which will use it to offer “experiential travel” over the North Pole with Arctic explorer Robert Swan.

Flight testing of prototypes has not always gone smoothly. After a successful 30 minute maiden journey, a prototype crashed in 2016, after which the company put out this report: “Airlander sustained damage on landing during today’s flight. No damage was sustained mid-air or as a result of a telegraph pole as reported.” As most pilots will tell you, taking off is easy. Landing is hard. One presumes HAV has taken prudent steps to solve any issues it has with getting passengers back on the ground safely.

Blimps are an idea that won’t go away. For some use cases, they may be a sensible alternatives to conventional airliners, even if they do bear a rather unfortunate resemblance to the Earth orbiter featured in the movie Wall-E. People once thought commercial air travel was impossible, so it would be wrong to dismiss blimps out of hand. There are lots of ideas out there for short-range electric airplanes designed to address the carbon emissions problem associated with conventional aircraft. Will blimps be part of our transportation mix in the future? “We’ll see,” said the Zen master.

Airlander 10. Courtesy of Hybrid Air Vehicles

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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