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Eye to the sky
Posted Wednesday, July 8, 2009 11:00 AM

Blimps are not commonly associated with problem-solving technology, but they can do what aeroplanes, trucks and trains cannot, so professor Barry Prentice examines how Canada can use these floating ships.

The blimp, or airship, predates aeroplanes by three years and today, July 8, marks the birthday of its inventor – German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin. He was born in 1838 and 62 years later, on July 2, 1900, his creation – the Zeppelin – took its maiden flight. When the Count died in 1917 airships had been flying for 17 years and he was hailed as being one of the greatest Germans of the 20th century.

The decades following his death saw his creation grow into ever-better machines, culminating in the Hindenburg, a 245-meter long vessel capable of carrying 120 people over an ocean. It launched in 1936 with explosive hydrogen providing its lift; in 1937 the hydrogen ignited and 36 lives, and the airship heyday, came to an end.

Still, a handful of people wouldn’t let this event permanently ground a grand idea; simply replace hydrogen with helium and it’s a different ball game.

Today, firms around the world are creating new designs for airships; some to carry people, many others to carry goods. (CargoLifter, a German-American company, reckoned the market for heavy lifting – things measuring 25 meters in any one dimension and weighing more than 100 tones – is worth $1 billion a year in America alone.)

Enter Barry Prentice, professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba’s Transport Institute.

Prentice is a leading expert on the new generation of cargo airships that are being developed.  He is investigating their use as a viable option for northern transportation. You see, many northern communities depend on temporary winter roads for their annual supply of construction materials, fuel and storable food products.  In recent years, however, the time available for operation of these vital arteries has been cut in half, and as the northern climate continues to warm, airplanes, which are much more expensive, will be the only alternative for remote communities.

But technology exists to produce diesel-powered airships capable of carrying payloads of up to 250 tonnes at speeds in excess of 125 km/h. Using helium gas for lift, they are vastly more fuel efficient than airplanes, do not require construction of expensive landing strips and could provide service to remote communities, mines and energy development projects throughout northern Canada.

“Rigid airships, which were written off 60 years ago as dangerous and uncompetitive for passenger movements, are finding a new purpose filling the growing demand for airfreight service,” Prentice wrote in a 2002 paper he co-authored with colleague A.J. Phillips.  “The prospect of using airships to move a significant share of freight in the Arctic is not fanciful. Indeed, it may be almost inevitable.”

In the meantime, other researchers in the Faculty of Agriculture and Food Science have used a roughly four-meter long blimp to take digital images of potato crops. The images are then used to surmise if the potatoes are suffering from water stress. Prior to the blimp’s employment, costlier satellites were used.

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