Hybrid Airships: A New Form of Arctic Transportation
By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, at American Public University
I first encountered the need for hybrid airships or lighter-than-air cargo aircraft in Alaska about 10 years ago when I chaired a roundtable. This roundtable was originally scheduled for a dozen leaders in Anchorage, Alaska. The topic was the possible uses of those airships for logistics, transportation and supply chain needs of commercial businesses throughout Alaska.
There is still a need to move seafood inland from coastal ports along the seacoast to the Ted Stevens International Airport. We also need to transport supplies to oil companies and gold mines hundreds of miles from any major city, like Fairbanks or Anchorage.
Hybrid Airships a Big Tourism Boost for Alaskan Cruise Ships
Also, hybrid airships can be a big tourism driver when Alaska cruise ship passengers jump onto floatplanes or helicopters to sightsee glaciers. An airship could offer a quieter and more dynamic alternative to those forms of transportation.
When I was teaching logistics at the University of Alaska, the dean and I held the first roundtable discussion on the potential of hybrid airships. More than 100 business leaders showed up. That level of interest has continued to this day within the transportation and logistics executives in Alaska, Canada and parts of the Lower 48 states.
Hybrid Airships Can Land Virtually Anywhere in the Arctic
The airship is a new type of craft with the aerodynamic shape of an airplane wing. That allows the craft to take off and fly from a small area.
There are emerging technology and supply chain management business needs that seem to be changing as fast as the Internet of Things has changed our view of the world.
Hybrid airships have near-zero carbon footprints when they land in the vast frozen regions of the Arctic tundra. There is no need for a mile-long runway; a large patch of ground, beach, grassy park or parking lot could serve as a landing site.
As supply chain managers and transportation company officials know, Alaska is full of weather extremes. Harsh weather restricts the movement of cargo from ships, barges, cargo planes, trucks, floatplanes, snowmobiles and dog sleds. That makes Alaska a prime location to study how hybrid ships could assist business and community needs.
Alaska remains a ripe location to study how hybrid aircraft ships could assist business and community needs. As I wrote in a 2005 Canadian study about the feasibility of using airships in the Arctic, “We have about 250 airports in Alaska. A lot of the outer villages have a variety of airplanes and we use barges and ships when the ice will let us.”
These remote villages are usually accessed by small floatplanes or aircraft capable of landing on ice and snow-packed runways. Food and medical supplies come into the villages by air and seafood is shipped out during salmon season. Giant U.S. retailers have visited Alaska from the Lower 48, looking at ways to centrally locate some of those big-box stores for easier access to remote populations.
Arctic Airships May Soon Become a Reality
The story of the airship for Arctic usage in Alaska and Canada is more than a dream. It is a potential business asset that can bring huge profits to the transportation industry and supply chains.
In fact, KTUU Channel 2 in Anchorage reported that an airship will come to Alaska in the near future. This $40 million airship, built by Lockheed Martin, carries 18 passengers and up to 44,000 pounds of equipment, more than a C-130 airplane can hold. The airship will come off the assembly line and arrive in Alaska sometime in 2018.
Advances in Aviation Technology Require Persistence
There are setbacks as with any aviation technology advances. It was only about 100 years ago before another group of crazy pioneers and investors were dreaming of fixed-wing aircraft for cargo and passenger travel.
There are pioneers in the hybrid airship field. Some have been funded with multiple millions of dollars from the government and some have funded research from their own pockets.
Dr. Barry Prentice is one of those pioneers. Dr. Prentice is a Professor of Supply Chain Management at the Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba, Canada. He was also the former Director of the Transport Institute in Canada. I met Dr. Prentice in 2005 while working with him on possible uses of these airships for use in the Arctic. Over the last few years, Dr. Prentice has invested his own funds into creating the reality of his lifelong dream of creating an airship called the Sky Whale.
Most recently, his real world airship was destroyed by the harsh Arctic weather. He told me, “We suffered a major setback because of a violent storm that destroyed our research hangar and airship.”
Dr. Prentice continues to work at his Sky Whale, working to meet the needs of rural people in need of assistance for such a craft as his airship. He has conducted a series of seminars over the past decade called “Airships to the Arctic” and may conduct another such seminar in Montreal in the spring 2017. This is how progress is made, one setback at a time, one more stumbling block removed. But yes, it is costly.
Dr. Prentice stated recently that, “Our research causes us to reject the idea of inflatable airships for use in the northern climate. The management of the gas in the wide temperature swings that we experience is a challenging problem. There is also the problem of condensation in the ballonet.”
The issues are decades old for the use of hybrid airships. The cargo carrying capacity could be 50 tons to 500 tons. That is conceptual for now. The work is still underway.
About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a professor at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of Reverse Logistics Management and Transportation and Logistics Management. Prior to joining APU, Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage with a focus on hybrid airship and RFID research. His book, RFID Metrics, was published in 2007 by CRC Press and is in revision with CRC Press.
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