back to article 'Huge airships to carry freight starting 10 years from now'

The long-touted idea of using airships to replace cargo aircraft is in the news again, courtesy of former head government boffin Professor Sir David King, who says "this is something I believe is going to happen". The 'Aeroscraft' concept 'Fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers and other foreign luxuries' will arrive like this. …

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  1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
    Terminator

    In ten years time

    The airships will all be shot down by the Skynet controlled self-refuelling, self-rearming fighter drones anyway (from Lewis' story earlier today). So there's no point even thinking about spending any R&D cash.

    All research must urgently be concentrated on the BSOD gun - which fires a combination of corrupted WiFi packets and viruses on all frequencies to cause the robot death machines to reboot - giving poor fleshies time to run away or permanently disable them.

  2. Marvin the Martian
    IT Angle

    And reusability vs. construction energy costs?

    I'd guess a giant floppy airship takes less resources to build than a rigid highspeed airliner (or not?), but conversely the airliner can keep flying with just a regular wash plus maintenance of all moving parts, while the airship will need its fabric replaced every once in a while.

    Any stab at these figures? My point is that replacing all (working) airliners with (newbuilt) airships would be a further CO2 & resources cost --- how does it weigh up to replacing them with more airliners?

    1. Robinson
      Thumb Down

      Interesting point.

      So, I read a paper that says vapour trails left by aircraft reflect sunlight and so increase the Earth's albedo (have a cooling effect) and on the other hand that the release of CO2 by aircraft increases the Earth's temperature. Presumably one pretty much cancels out the other, so let's not talk about CO2. CO2 is the word that gets your research funded in the first place, that's all.

      I imagine it would cheaper and slower to send goods in an air-ship (compared to an airliner), although we already have a cheap and slow method of sending goods called a Freighter. Otherwise, we could always use, say, Rail.

      Can someone point out the business case for airships again?

  3. Richie Hindle
    IT Angle

    Footnotes

    Can we have the footnotes on the same page as the content that refers to them? Please?

  4. AGirlFromVenus

    helium?

    Can somebody remind me about the avaiability of helium and it renewable status? I thought it was basically use it then lose it...

    Cheers,

    B

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Helium

      Correct. Helium is a very finite resource (as a monatomic gas with an atomic weight of 4 it easily escapes into space, unlike the heavier inert gases such as argon).

      The Earth's helium supply comes from isotope decay in the crust, over millions of years. Certain geological strata can trap the gas.

      Current helium reserves are expected to last 30-50 years, which is a big problem if you rely on superconducting magnets for i.e. NMR spectrometers or MRI scanners.

      1. Steve Crook

        Helium Reserves

        Helium is extracted from gases from oil wells (US great plains?), where it's actually quite abundant. The US govt. used to mandate its collection and storage. But some years ago they decided they had enough, and stopped collecting. So, while you're correct there are limited reserves, there's still quite a lot underground.

        All we have to do is extract it, and not piss it away in floating balloons for kids or making silly voices...

  5. Jolyon Ralph
    Flame

    Use Hydrogen in new airships, not helium.

    Hydrogen is by far the best gas to use in airships, yes it can catch fire and burn, but it's half the density of helium, and MUCH cheaper.

    It's perfectly reasonable for a safe hydrogen airship to be built with modern technology. Yeah it could go bang if someone deliberately shot something into it, but if you're looking for something to transport cargo primarily rather than people then it wouldn't be too hard to design some kind of crew escape module (assuming that these things would need a crew at all).

  6. Efros
    Thumb Down

    Helium

    Is constantly released from radioactive decay, largely from shale oil deposits. We've heard this airship crap since the 1930s. I'll believe it when I see it.

    1. Steve X

      Not bang, but whooof, surely

      IIRC, most of those who died in the Hindenburg accident did so because they jumped, and died on impact. Those who rode the ship down (then ran like hell) survived. That was, at least in part, because burning pure hydrogen goes up, not bang.

      So yes, a safe hydrogen airship sounds OK to me. If they could get it up to maybe 150MPH it would even make a reasonable cruise liner, since the limit would be weight, not space.

    2. Mike Richards Silver badge

      Yes but...

      By your methodology oil, coal and natural gas are renewable fuels.

      Helium is being created constantly at a rate of about 3000 tonnes per year across the Earth. Unfortunately we're using ten times that much every year.

    3. Mike Richards Silver badge

      Seconded

      RoboBlimp!

      Surely the real market for these things is as freighters which can bring us the essentials of life (Spanish strawberries and Shanghai iPhones) much more quietly than a 747?

      1. drewsup
        Happy

        300 tonnes

        Ya but that's 3000 tonnes of helium, how much does it really weigh??

      2. Efros

        Not quite...

        I believe that we are using several billion times more natural gas, coal and oil than is being produced. So your analogy doesn't bear examination, most industrial helium is derived from distillation of natural gas. the 3000 tonnes you refer to is that liberated from the earths rocks etc naturally.

    4. Kubla Cant Silver badge
      Flame

      Hydrogen

      According to a not-very-reliable source (something like a Horizon programme), the Hindenberg probably caught fire because of the paint used on it, rather than the hydrogen. Though the hydrogen probably made a difference once it got going.

      Drawing further on my collection of half-remembered factoids, I believe it's not that easy to set an airship alight by shooting things at it, because they tend to go right through and just end up making it a bit more leaky.

      1. Mike Richards Silver badge

        Not a good theory

        The theory is that the aluminium powder in the doped cover (which was there to reflect heat) reacted with an iron oxide primer. As good old-fashioned chemistry practicals taught us aluminium + iron oxide + heat -> aluminium oxide + iron + mind boggling amounts of heat. This is the thermite reaction.

        The theory falls apart because the concentrations of iron oxide in the primer would not have been enough to start the reaction.

        It also conflicts with evidence from the ground that report seeing a glow deep inside the airship before the fire became visible on the skin; and that the ship was reportedly stern heavy on her final approach, both of which suggest a hydrogen leak deep inside the craft.

        At the end of the day, hydrogen doomed the ship; the Germans had just been incredibly lucky that they hadn't lost a civilian ship before then.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Flame

          Mythbusters..

          It was Mythbusters, the only show daft enough to actually try to replicate an exploding airship!!

        2. Matthew 17

          @Mike Richards

          All the descriptions of the fire stated that it was orange (didn't really come out in the black and white pictures), had it been a hydrogen fire then it would have been blue.

          Either way if the Zep had been built today regardless of whether it used Hydrogen or Helium it wouldn't have had the same design problems.

          1. lord_farquaad
            Pint

            hum ...

            not understood : do you mean that, though there was a fire of the whole thing, hydrogen did not burn ?

    5. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

      Hydrogen does not easily go bang

      even if you shoot at it. The small holes caused by bullets of WW-I fighters often failed to have an impact. Even phosphorous-coated tracers had difficulty bringing the zeppelins down, because oxygen mixed with the hydrogen neither quick enough or in large enough quantities.

      You need a fairly powerful incendiary to make these things explode.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Solar?

    Not sure about the weight levels, but given the surface area and the need for

    a skin anyway, could solar tip the energy balance?

    During the day of course....

  8. Graham Bartlett

    @Marvin

    Quite a few assumptions there.

    A "floppy" airship might need fabric renewing due to UV damage, like balloons, parachutes and paragliders do. But for a rigid airship, there's unlikely to be much degradation of the airbags over time. It'd be covered with a lightweight metal skin, which would be unstressed and wouldn't need any maintenance at all (except the regular wash).

    Airlines need vast amounts of TLC though. Not just maintenance of all moving parts, although this is clearly the major element - jet engines aren't cheap to build in the first place, nor to rebuild after their rated flying hours, plus maintenance on all control surfaces. But also there's the vibration on wings and tail ("vertical stabiliser" for the initiated) which needs to have a close eye kept on it (look out of the plane in flight and see how much the wings wiggle - I guarantee it'll worry you).

    And as far as renewal goes, airlines regularly renew their fleets anyway. When you've got aircraft flying umty-tum thousand miles a day for a few years, getting aircraft with lower fuel consumption is a very big deal indeed. Planes today are generally slower than they used to be 30ish years back, but they take so much less fuel that more hours' pay for staff isn't a big deal.

    Re the article though, it makes the assumption that airships would be powered by avgas. Understandable - but not necessarily right. If you're flying above the clouds and you've got an airship with a few thousand square feet of surface area, PV panels and electric motors are a natural choice. Bit of a bummer at night, sure, but you're neutrally buoyant in the air so you don't need power to stay up - a bank of batteries will store excess leccy during the day and you're laughing. Suddenly the carbon budget looks a whole lot different.

    1. Steve Roper

      It's not so much the wings wiggling

      When I last looked out of the window of a 747 it wasn't so much the way the wings were flapping as much as it was the way the engines were bobbling around on their mountings that worried me...

    2. John Sturdy

      Wobbly wings; and solar power

      An anecdote that did the rounds a good few years ago: A passenger looks out of the window during turbulence, sees the wings flexing, and grips the seat in front of him, knuckles white with fear. The woman in the next seat notices this, and says kindly: "Don't worry, they're meant to do that; I'm an off-duty air hostess and I know about these things." The man replies "And I'm an off-duty engineer from Boeing, and they're not meant to go *that* far on this model."

      More seriously: would it be possible, and cheaper than PV, to concentrate the sunlight through a transparent upper part of the hull, onto steam tubes, and drive turbines from that?

      1. BossHog

        Stirling engine

        You could perhaps use an air-cooled stirling engine with that design.

        No need to boil water then!

  9. Graham Bartlett

    @GirlFromVenus

    You get helium from liquifying air and separating out the relevant bit. There's limited supplies of helium in the atmosphere, but if/when it escapes from your balloon, it just goes back into the atmosphere. Given vast amounts of time and low enough gravity, it would all eventually escape, but Earth's gravity is enough that it mostly doesn't. "Renewable status" would mostly depend on the power used to do the air-liquifying.

  10. RichardD

    Do something new instead of redoing the 1920s

    Us hydrogen(*). Use fuel cells to turn some of it into electricity for the propellers. Coat the top of the thing with PV cells so that coasting downwind above the clouds it can refuel itself. Aim for a smaller vehicle which can displace road/rail feight as well as airfreight. Make then automatic to save the cost of a human pilot. Control bouyancy by pumping gas into/out of high-pressure tanks. Say goodbye to the ecconomic restriction that any useful enterprise has to be on a decent road/railway/near a port/near an airport.

    (*) Yes, I know it's combustible but then so is aviation fueel, which has a higher energy density and a sits around in puddles waiting to burn rather than dispersing.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Actual boffin's actual speculation

    If these airships come to pass and reduce jetliner traffic significantly, it might have a significant impact on global warming, but not in a good way. In the days after the 911 attacks when air traffic over the US was stopped, ground temperatures rose due to the lack of contrails increasing the Earth's albedo. I can't imagine an airship producing a contrail.

    1. Mike Richards Silver badge

      Oh no it doesn't

      The Earth is unable to hold on to helium because helium tends to migrate to the upper part of the atmosphere where the thermal velocity of helium atoms exceeds escape velocity. Some is also lost by ionisation through the Solar Wind.

      There is no primordial helium on Earth which is easy to prove since He3 is practically non-existent down here whereas its plentiful on Jupiter which is big enough to hold on to its original helium.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Just burn the hydrogen

      they wanted to do it for the R100 and R101 but it was easier to use petrol and diesel engines

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        From gas fields..

        It's found in natural gas, in varying quantities:-

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Helium_Reserve

  12. Hanni Ali

    Marine Freight...

    The economics and timeliness should also be compared to marine transportation for certain goods, which would potentially expand the available freight market for the airships. Faster than water based ships, potentially larger and more efficient than road freight and more direct than rail freight with lower infrastructure costs than all of these. Airships would probably be useful in lowering costs for quicker than shipping, but slower than flying freight.

  13. GreyWolf
    Stop

    The Year of the Airship

    I'm with Efros on this. It's been the Year of the Airship every other year throughout the decades, and it's never happened, for simple economic reasons - nobody can get the business numbers to work. The economic value of getting cargo to its destination quickly far outweighs the saving from cheap transportation. Which is why there's so many bloody container trucks on the roads, so little cargo on the canals, and so few airships in the skies.

  14. Billy 7
    FAIL

    If the cargo can travel so slow...

    .....wouldn't it be better going by sea on a container ship?

    Isn't the whole point of air freight the high speed\short delivery time.....

  15. GreyWolf
    Stop

    Dream on...

    >'Fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers and other foreign luxuries' will arrive like this. …<

    Whoever wrote this line doesn't check the country of origin on the labels of the fruit and veg in the supermarket. For example, peas and runner beans - from Kenya or Ecuador - by airship? Not only won't it be fresh, but it is likely to be covered with hairy mould by the time it gets here.

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      Cheaper and better than ships?

      I suspect that a sea going ship uses much more fuel per kilogram of freight than an airship. It also is slower and easier to hijack. It can only call at a port, whereas an airship can be loaded/unloaded inland.

      But I think you're right - the airships will compete with maritime transport rather than with the airplanes.

      1. BlueGreen

        efficiency

        About 5000 tonne/miles per tonne of fuel, roundabout. Much more efficient than you'd suppose.

        1. Peter Ford

          Sails?

          Even better if you use the wind to power some of the journey...

    2. Mike Richards Silver badge

      Even better than blimps

      Ekranoplans - much more fuel efficient than a plane and much faster than a ship. For those of us that grew up on Gerry Anderson TV they also have the added advantage of looking seriously awesome:

      http://www.russia2all.com/images/shop/customer_media/7558/km-ekranoplan.jpg

      (yes those are ALL engines!)

      1. Peter Ford
        FAIL

        Ekranoplan?

        Remember that airships and other airliners can also fly over land too, including mountains. I don't see an ekranoplan managing that very well.

        Anyway, how can something with *that* many engines be efficient? :)

        1. Gordon is not a Moron
          Go

          They work, it's just a slightly harder landing when they break

          How well they cope depends on what type of Ekranoplan it is

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ekranoplan.

          Q : Anyway, how can something with *that* many engines be efficient? :)

          A : By not using all of them

    3. Adam Williamson 1
      Stop

      To a point, Lord Copper

      "Which is why there's so many bloody container trucks on the roads, so little cargo on the canals, and so few airships in the skies."

      Doesn't explain why there's so many gigantic cargo ships floating about in the Pacific, though, does it?

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Flame

    It will not hit aircraft cargo, it will hit ferries

    The main candidates for an airship replacement will not be airplane shipments. This will be all those lorries that get loaded at Bilbao, Hook of Holland and other similar places onto the small boat to bring some cucumbers and water melons to the supermarket shelf.

    There is also a case for cutting down delivery times (and risks for high value goods) on some of the ship routes from the far East to Europe and the USA.

    It will be interesting to see some numbers for these.

  17. Glen Murie

    The Advantage of Airships

    FIrst, they can scale up to infinite weight capacity. So the US Military has a few ideas about transporting whole battalions on mega-sized airships. Most importantly, barring winds that would also knock helicopters out of the air they can land anywhere.

    So if you're a military commander fighting an insurgency the advantages become clear right away. Do you try to secure and hold an airport with its easily vandalized runways, roads leading to and from that can be mined or lined with snipers, and deal with all the trucking and escorts? Or do you just drop several hundred tons of stuff wherever you want?

    Likewise, if you're Walmart which approach do you prefer? Do you deal with cargo ships and containers, and trains, and trucks, and all the steps involved in moving dozens of containers from factory, to train, to ship, to train, to truck, to distribution center, to truck again? Or do you park a great whopping airship over the factories, winch up a mega-ton of stuff, and then coast over to the regional distribution hubs and drop them right there? You can't do fresh produce that way, but it makes sense for most other things. Well, given the time consumed moving stuff from one form of transport to the other it might be faster...

    Foreign aid agencies are also mad for this idea. Using airships they can bypass bottlenecks like airports and sea ports that are often controlled by corrupt governments and airdrop stuff directly to those people who need the stuff.

    1. TeeCee Gold badge
      Grenade

      Aid Agencies

      "Using airships they can bypass bottlenecks like airports and sea ports that are often controlled by corrupt governments and airdrop stuff directly to those people who need the stuff."

      Always assuming that said corrupt government doesn't have something that passes for an air force or, failing that, a couple of lads with shoulder launched AA missiles (or even el cheapo RPGs - airships are big and don't move fast) to piss on their picnic. In other words, exactly what stops them doing this sort of thing now with helicopters....

    2. Steve Roper
      Joke

      Infinite weight capacity LOL

      Well, the size of the planet sort of imposes a practical cap to that. And while an airship the size of the continental US would look most impressive from a sci-fi movie buff's point of view, the cost of construction, maintenance, loading, moving and unloading it, not to mention the delightful effect it would have on the climate, means that we'll probably have to settle for floating cities as our theoretical maximum...

  18. Paul 70

    Seems like a good Idea to me - why not expand it?

    We should also consider the huge amounts of shipping traffic that slurps around the world. These would surely be faster and, if big enough, be able to carry vast weights.

    Also, wasn't the US going to vent its reserves of helium (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/02/05/helium_dome_forever/)

    Seems a bit of a wasted opportunity there.

  19. VeganVegan
    Joke

    The blimp is derisible,

    because to get to above a certain size, it needs stiffening to become more rigid.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Coat

    If you ask me...

    ...this is all just a bunch of hot air.

  21. gimbal
    FAIL

    Respectfully, "Meh"

    I see. His conjectures, as reported, would pivot on the air-freight carriers' concerns about carbon emissions? Does the eminent boffin really believe as if the companies were really that concerned about carbon emissions? as if the whole carbon emissions game was not just a PR show, after all?

    If I was running an air freight carrier, I think reason would serve to dictate that I'd be concerned about safety, foremost - which a well-maintained, well-piloted, effectoively unhijackable air-freight vehicle would be no great concern about , for safety again - and then, timeliness of transport. I don't believe the "carbon footprint" of the operation would ever enter onto the blotter.

    Next-day air-by-blimp delivery? Sounds novel, it definitely sounds novel.

    1. Adam Williamson 1
      Joke

      Not really

      "I see. His conjectures, as reported, would pivot on the air-freight carriers' concerns about carbon emissions?"

      Bear in mind, they are being reported in the Guardian. It's *just* conceivable the Graun would spin a side point in the Prof's conjectures into the main point of their article. Bit far-fetched, I know, but you've got to admit, it might happen!

  22. Steven Jones

    Fuel Efficiency

    So it's claimed these things could save 90% of the CO2 emissions? It might well be that they are potentially more fuel efficient than modern jets, but the Hindenberg wasn't.

    The A380 is quoted at 3L of fuel per 100 passenger km. In the case of the Hindenberg it would typically use about 35,000L to carry 45 paying passengers approximately 8,430km from Frankfurt to New York. That's over 9L of fuel per passenger km. Of course (due to the length of the journey time) this was a machine with cabins, stewards and several flight shifts, but that was necessary for the length of the flight. It could also do a lot better downwind, but in a strong headwind it would do a lot worse and an airship has less freedom to escape weather conditions.

    Of course modern, more fuel efficient engines, better aerodynamics, higher technology materials and the like might well allow a modern airship to beat efficient modern airliners on fuel efficiency, but there's now way it could ever be 30x more efficient than the Hindenberg (which it would have to be to meet the 90% CO2 reduction target) and that would be at the considerable expense in time (for which you'd need proportionately more airships in the air, higher crew overheads due to the need to carry at least three shifts).

    I think 90% CO2 reduction compared to the newest jets, whether on a per passenger km or per tonne-km is moonshine.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Coat

      100% right but whats puzzling me

      is why we are still using airplanes that are basically a tube with wings nailed on. Jack Northrop proved in 1947 that a flying wing was far more fuel efficient. Instead of floaty pie in the sky balloons why not just maximise efficiency with proven designs.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northrop_YB-49

      The flying wing is a proven design.

  23. Stgeli

    Good old committes

    The use of a diesel engine in the R101 was the result of a government committee that decided that petrol was too flammable for the trip to India. Forgetting, strangely enough, the millions of cubic feet of hydrogen filling the hull!

    Consequently, the ship was stricken with locomotive engines that were too heavy, unreliable couldn't run at full speed otherwise they would shake themselves apart. This was a contributory factor in it crashing in France as it didn't have enough power to try and get above the rain that was weighing it down from the moment it took off.

    S

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Jobs Horns

    Helium?

    It's monatomic - meaning it's a single atom - so it leaks through almost everything. The US govt has sold it's national reserve of the "critical material" onto the market. And helium has properties that nothing else has so bacially when the reserves are pissed away on party balloons and stupid shit, there will be nothing left for things like the Hadron Collider, testing rocket engines, and a whole shit load of critical things, including welding gas.

    I want to see the return of BIG hydrogen air ships....

  25. Pyromancer
    Pirate

    Yarrr!

    So the steampunk dream comes true as all the Somalis currently zipping about the Gulf of Aden in speedboats start hoarding hydrogen and take up new careers as airship pirates? :-)

    Seriously though, airships for freight, and possibly for ultra-luxury passenger cruising, will become reality when lightweight high capacity rechargeable batteries do. Once you can store a few MVA in a battery bank weighing no more than a tank of diesel does just now, you cover the skin of your airship in PV cells, which both charge the batteries and provide power during the day, and then run off the batteries at night. Electrically driver propellers (electric ducted fans even?) drive the ship through the air.

    Once the technology for that exists, you've a ship that effectively flies for free. That will compete effectively with both airline freight and sea freight for some cargoes, mainly stuff that isn't too heavy, but doesn't need the all-out speed of an airliner.

    1. Wibble
      Pirate

      Pirates

      The reason the Somalis have so much shipping to choose from is so much has to go through the Suez Canal.

      An airship can go from A to B, OK, from A to B navigating around troublesome countries.

      Thus the Somalis et al can go back to banging rocks together and trying to figure out a way of evolving into a amicable society.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      I think...

      ...that we will see the return of biplanes pretty soon after the launch of the first airship. Crimson Skies forever!

  26. Hay Jude

    Possibly

    I think if Air Ships have a future in the cargo business it's going places where all weather roads are impractical or imposible and ice roads are costly, ie: to the artic diamond mines in Canada.

  27. John Savard Silver badge

    Weather

    Because airships are so large and light, they're very vulnerable to high winds. This is why the Akron experienced a disaster despite being helium-filled. Airship advocates have said that today's more accurate weather forecasting would solve this problem, but I think that many would be skeptical - particularly for journeys across the Atlantic, as opposed to short hops.

  28. Carrierbag Head
    Thumb Up

    titleytitlething

    Don't worry about the Helium supply, guys, this guy is working on a fusion reactor in this garage :D:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/us_and_canada/10385853.stm

    Maybe someone should look into creating a ship that's some sort of Helium/Hydrogen hybrid. e.g. Have an outer shell which uses the safer but less efficient Helium, but a inner shell of Hydrogen. Else maybe combine the two in inter dispersed gasbags. I think Helium as an inert gas would be pretty good at putting out a fire? So if a Hydrogen pouch caught fire, a neighbouring helium pouch, if punctured by the fire might help to put it out and contain the damage.

    Alternatively create a molded, fire resistant/proof honeycomb structure that could seal in the Hydrogen in say, tiny little bubbles, a bit like the air bubbles in an Aero bar.

    Wouldn't it be great if they could create slabs of a sort of fireproof polystyrene type material, full of small hydrogen bubbles, and if you let it go it would just float up to the ceiling? :) But would be relatively safe because the hydrogen would be contained within the structure. Anyway, maybe that's science fiction, but might be possible someday if it isn't today.

    Anyway, I'd love to see big airships back. Fingers crossed.

  29. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects 1
    FAIL

    It will never happen

    All this talk and comparison isn't the problem. Lighter than air machines could go to the winds and travel at comparable speeds (in one direction) to airliners and thus be helium powered.

    They could follow the sun and make use of solarpower development which BTW isn't good enough yet. And they could reinvent the wheel in gas canopies.

    But the fact remains that on the ground the infrastructures for all potential customers is geared to motor cars - the end point of all retail outlets these days.

    Even out of town retail parks would need a major redsign. It's a problem akin to the refueling of electric cars:

    Infrastructure.

    Retailers don't innovate. They spend very little on research and development. They are motivated by acountants not inventors.

    As for big military budgets. Anyone foolish enough to put all their eggs in one basket has to keep out of dodge. Pearl Harbour comes to mind in a military mind set where upper etchelons refuse to see the bloody obvious.

    And as for military research, the USA went through most of WW 2 without functional torpedoes. Britain was still insisting on half ton rear guns on its fighter interceptors as the Battle of Britain started.

    They only went with Hurricanes as they were more easily produced. And stuck with the Spitfire long after the lightweight vehicle made military sense.

    Blair sent in an illegal occupying force with no boots and no armour. The same reason Britain lost Singapore in WW 2.

    They will never learn.

    1. streaky Silver badge

      Fireproof shiz

      "Wouldn't it be great if they could create slabs of a sort of fireproof polystyrene type material"

      Aka aerogel? Google it.

      Putting hydrogen in there probably not so easy though.

    2. Alex Rose

      Why not vacuum honeycomb

      If you can make a material light enough that the hydrogen in it provides enough lift you're probably at least half-way towards making a honeycomb full of vacuum.

      Vacuum is going to provide more lift than hydrogen or helium and isn't going to be as flamable as hydrogen or as rare as helium!

  30. DaWolf

    defeatist attitude

    If we never do anything because it'll only have a small effect, then you can't add up all those small effects to make big effects.

    Let's say Lewis is right and it's somewhere between 99.5% and 99.9% of the carbon being used afterwards, worldwide. That's small change right? Actually, that's of the margin of the entire UK's electricity consumption.

    You can make big changes by a cumulation of small changes. But to listen to Lewis, this isn't possible.

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nothing will happen until...

    ... fossil fuels run out.

    Then back will come the airship, the canal barge, the horse and cart and those 4 man bycycles you used to be able to rent at the seaside in the 70's

  32. Stewart Wood
    Happy

    Hydrogen Airships

    I think these days we have the technology's & Materials to make Safer Advanced Hydrogen Airships

    Hydrogen Airships can use themselves as storage and power

    Hydrogen Fuel Cells + Inverters means you can throw Heavy Batterers out due you store the power in Hydrogen tanks

    Hydrogen can be both be used as a Electrical Power + Lifting medium for the ship

    Solar Power tech has come a long way so soon we start seeing solar fabrics for extra power.

    Water from the Hydrogen Fuel Cell can be used to top up the ballast or drinking water or in the day time be turned back into Hydrogen by the solar fabrics or just dump overboard

    Sea + Lake Rivers you can Pump up and convert to Hydrogen

    Day/Night time the Jet Streams can be used to conserve power for movement .

  33. Smooth Newt
    FAIL

    When huge freight-carrying airships become a reality

    They will have to be covered in strong wire mesh to stop pigs roosting on them.

  34. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Great Article....

    However, you omit to mention that airships are the ultimate VTOL aircraft. They do not need runways, and might be a cost effective solution to the transport to and from areas of the world were road infrastructure is poor / inexistant.

  35. Alan Firminger

    It will never happen

    There is a major flaw in the idea of a massive fragile object loose in the air.

    Today is placid. Look out of the window and imagine an artificial cloud delicately passing by.

    The forces on large buildings are significant, requiring a lot of steel for security. Multiply the slab side by a hundred and calculate the structure needed for security in all weathers.

    Consider the stresses when we get a force 7.

    Recall pictures of British Airways fleet on the parked at Heathrow recently. What will happen if a fleet of airships is grounded for any reason, which may be technical, financial or HR .

    Hithertoo proposers explain that the machines will steer round storms. If only it were that easy. The machines have to reach their destinations and they have to come to earth. Is it proposed that at each stop there will be hangars for every one that might need it.

    Hangers are called that because they were first erected so that blimps could hang safely in all weathers. Here are two at Cardington, note the scale.

    http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=Cardington,+Bedford,+United+Kingdom&sll=52.492815,-0.898132&sspn=0.809391,2.661438&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Cardington,+Bedford,+United+Kingdom&ll=52.109016,-0.421665&spn=0.003189,0.010396&t=h&z=17

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      Not for this reason though

      Experiments during WWI showed that dirigibles only needed hangars for serious maintenance and overhaul. For other purposes, mooring masts were just as safe.

  36. Old Marcus

    And all I can think about...

    Is the game Crimson Skies. Nathan Zachary!

  37. sybaric
    Happy

    5...4...3...2...1....

    Thunderbirds are go!!!

  38. MiniMatt

    0.1% = basically nil?

    Firstly, airships are cool and therefore we should have them regardless; they could use kittens for a fuel source and they'd still be cool.

    Secondly - can 0.1% carbon saving be categorised as "basically nil"? Just strikes me that in systems of such magnitude as an ecosystem 0.1% is potentially significant.

    Also, are we potentially categorising freight transported alongside passengers as being carbon free? Ok, so the weight saved by flying passengers only on todays jets would mean fairly negligible fuel savings but there would be savings nonetheless - and as freight shifts over wouldn't new passenger jets be designed with reduced freight space making them smaller/lighter/fuel efficient by design?

  39. Adrian Tritschler
    Megaphone

    Predict, ignore, repeat

    At the age of 10 in about 1975 I inherited a huge pile of magazines from somewhere, can't quite remember the title but it was "World of Tomorrow" or "Towards tomorrow" or something like that. There was at least one big article in there about "Huge airships coming by the year 2000". Seems they're always "in the next ten years"

  40. karma mechanic

    What happens when it offloads the freight ?

    Big new airship carrying many tons of HTC Desires and iPads arrives at the cargo depot. Lots of pallets unloaded. Airship (now considerably lighter) shoots up to 10 thousand feet.

    Or will they swap ballast ? What could we send back to the Far East ?

    This issue could be a problem with the previously-mentioned military variant - a tank drives off the ramp and the thing heads for the sky...

    Or do they re-compress some gas from the flotation bags to lose some of the lift ?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      FAIL

      In the olden days

      They just tethered the thing to a ground station before unloading. You can also just stock up on ballast as well.

  41. fch
    Flame

    Is it new-economy-bubble time again ?

    First webvan2.0 aka ocado, now a repeat of one of the biggest scandals of the German stockmarket a decade ago:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargolifter

    The enormous hangar they build these days is housing a "tropical spa" recreational wonderland - which is not making money either. Maybe the new rising star of zeppelin construction mentioned in the article should buy these guys out, at least the hall is there already, and since it's rural east germany I'm sure there'll be some subsidies that local authorities can be conned out of.

  42. Shonko Kid
    Go

    Advantages

    Surely an airship is much more robust than an airplane or helicopter, they are much more forgiving of in-flight faults. Is that not an advantage?

    Also, they are pretty cool. We don't do enough things just because they are cool these days.

  43. Anonymous Coward
    Grenade

    never really understood...

    ..the knee jerk reaction to the Hindenburg incident - one single craft crashes/burns. 37 people died..sure..but for one single thing to put an end to a form of travel? ye gods. we get a jumbo airliner going down year after year and yet aviation continues.... i guess it could be compared to the Concorde incident. one crash and all are grounded for ever after..but even that is really poor. no. i think there are other forces at work... otherwise the car would have been banned in almost all developing countries too :-|

  44. stu 4
    Thumb Up

    I like zeppilins

    but not as much as the moon

    www.rathergood.com/moon_song

  45. The Starglider

    It can't be just me...

    ...who is now thinking of Blade Runner?

  46. CD001

    A new life...

    A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies...

    I want my advertising blimps, flying cars, arcologies and dystopian, replicant-ridden future thanks! Oki, so you can get brollies with lights in the handles now but the closest thing we've got to a Nexus 6 is a bloody Google-powered mobile phone *boo*

    1. Adam Williamson 1

      There already

      We've got the advertising blimps (go to any major golf tournament and look up) and flying cars (well, just about, see recent story about FAA bending over backwards to accommodate one) already, and boy, do we have dystopia in spades. Arcologies and replicants coming shortly.

  47. Nigel 11
    Thumb Down

    Headwind trouble

    The obvious problem is that an airship with a normal speed of 70mph flying into a headwind of 70mph (not uncommon) is going precisely nowhere, just burning fuel to stay put. And it's such a large object that there's no chance of speeding it up to 140mph relative, because drag scales as a high power of airspeed. At times it'll end up with negative groundspeed, i.e. going backwards.

    The effect of weather on scheduling airships would be a logistical nightmare. Not even sailing ships are so unreliable. A sail-powered ship has a keel and water for it to press against. As a result, it can tack upwind.

    The only use I can see for airships is delivering bulky cargo to remote places lacking in road or rail infrastructure.

  48. P. Lee Silver badge
    Welcome

    Competing with ships?

    How about with road-freight? 75mph is quite fast for roads and they can fly as the crow flies (well, you know what I mean) so that would be fine for non-city-street drop-offs.

    Think of them as trains, without the need for government-built track.

  49. JDX Gold badge
    Joke

    Vacuum power!

    Forget hydrogen and helium, just invent new exotic materials that allow a vacuum to be supported by a thin skin of some nano-mesh against atmospheric pressure. No danger of burning. Although it could IMPLODE in a very satisfactory way which might be worse.

    Also let's have really giant airships. Like cruise-liners with swimming pools, etc. Can you imagine the cool factor of going on an air-cruise? In fact, make them big enough to be small towns covered in solar panels and collecting water from the clouds.

    Not to mention you could have a great party on an airship lasting several years, pausing only for the occasional wine & cheese raid on the ground below.

  50. Daedalus Silver badge
    Thumb Down

    Just big ol' sky trucks, but not as useful

    A quick look at the specs for the original zeps shows a "useful lift" of about 10 tonnes for these behemoths, or about 1 kg per 20 cu. m. of volume. Scale up 2x in every direction and you've got about 80 tonnes of useful lift (gross lift minus structural weight etc.).

    If you do that you still fall way short of most land- and sea-going transport. Even some of the larger fixed wing aircraft will give the zeps a run for their money, especially as they are way faster. What kind of freight would benefit from traveling ten times faster than most ships over the sea, but five times slower than in a plane?

    Zeps are too slow for passenger travel, and don't cut the mustard for freight, except possibly in some very limited cases. There won't be any zeps full of cars or computers passing overhead in this particular parallel universe.

  51. Anonymous Coward
    Stop

    Combining all these comments...

    9/11 would indeed have been very different if the aircraft involved were inflatable...

  52. Anonymous Coward
    FAIL

    It won't happen

    Regardless of how much you like airships. They are too big and too light, and therefore they don't work in the wind - a bit of a problem for ubiquitous transportation. They are also way too slow for perishables which is what aircraft are used for at the moment. Of course, if we stopped flying perishable foods around the world I don't think our lives would be greatly worsened. Do I really need fish caught off Japan flown to New York to make my sushi?

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