Before the infamous Hindenburg disaster put an end to the airship era in 1937, lighter-than-air zeppelins were slated to become the future of transportation.
That vision was put to rest for the better part of a century, but today several companies are intent on reviving airships to carry incredibly heavy cargo payloads with increasing levels of success.
Airships offer advantages over other forms of cargo transport. Their value lies in their weight capacity, paired with the ability to land almost anywhere without the need of an airstrip or ground crew. This feature reduces costs and increases efficiency, allowing for quicker loading and unloading.
Airships can travel long and treacherous distances, landing in near-unreachable areas to deliver goods and supplies.
An American company called Aeros is one of the forerunners in the modern airship movement. It launched a high-tech cargo airship called the Aeroscraft last year.
Aeros’s prototype is able to carry payloads of up to 60 tonnes. The company is now developing a ship that will more than double this weight.
The airship was designed through a partnership with DARPA and NASA. It can achieve a vertical takeoff and landing with no ground support, operating through a helium tank.
With these high-tech capabilities, airships have the potential to revolutionise transport in a number of fields.
Aeros foresees using the Aeroscraft to deliver heavy cargo to hard-to-reach locations, transporting disaster relief supplies and aiding military transportation.
UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles is another leader in airship technology. The company is currently in the process of designing two different airships.
One of the prototypes is focused on endurance. It is able to stay airborne for 5 days at a time, conducting surveys and research, providing communications outlets and acting as a surveillance platform.
The second is a heavy-lifting airship similar to the Aeroscraft that can land on nearly any surface, making it optimal for disaster relief and the gas, oil and mining industries.
Airships set themselves apart from typical cargo planes because of the ability to land almost anywhere without the need of an airstrip or ground crew. This feature reduces costs and increases efficiency, allowing for quicker loading and unloading.
In addition, airships present a more environmentally friendly alternative to plane transport because they need less fuel to operate and fly at a lower altitude, producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
As hybrid airship technology continues to develop, so will the uses for it. These companies already foresee using their ships to globalise world markets by quickly transporting products like fresh fruits and vegetables to revolutionise daily cuisine.
They also haven’t forgotten the airship-era dream of cruising the sky for pleasure, maintaining that one day airships will allow people to enjoy the amenities of a resort or a cruise in the clouds.
Of course, the airship tragedies of the past cannot be forgotten, but these companies are incorporating advanced safety features into their prototypes to ensure their reliability. One day soon, we will be able to fully realize the potential of the airship technology that was all but abandoned last century.