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Not just blimps: Airships come into their own

The office of Barry Prentice, director of the Transport Institute at the University of Manitoba, looks almost like the den of any other senior academic, except for the foil replica of the Goodyear blimp hanging in a corner beside a bookshelf.

"My staff gave it to me," he says, sheepishly. "It's so hard getting beyond what I'd call the 'giggle factor' with this topic."

People sometimes smirk when Mr. Prentice describes his vision of using helium-filled airships to open up Canada's North, ferrying supplies into mining camps and native reserves with no roads and poor air service.

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But nobody will be laughing, Mr. Prentice predicts, when they witness the demonstration he has planned for his third annual Airships to the Arctic conference next year. A prototype dirigible will compete against an airplane, carrying a heavy load of fresh food from southern Manitoba to a remote northern reserve, he said. Researchers are planning to measure how much fuel each craft uses, and how much pollution each generates.

"It will be a world first," Mr. Prentice said. "Hopefully this demonstration will help us move toward a tipping point to show this can actually work."

Airships have slowly drifted back into favour over the past two decades. The giant, bulbous aircraft, which stay aloft by carrying lighter-than-air gasses, were considered to be leading-edge aviation technology a century ago.

The technology's reputation literally went up in flames with the 1937 crash of the Hindenburg, relegating airships to the status of floating billboards over football stadiums.

But new materials have spawned a different generation of the aircraft. The volatile hydrogen used in the Hindenburg has been replaced with non-flammable helium, metal trusses have been replaced with carbon fibre, and the Hindenburg's shell of treated cotton fabric has been updated with space-age material so tough that a modern airship can safely land on its belly.

"It's the rebirth of airships," said Hokan Colting, founder of 21st Century Airships Inc., a leading maker of airships in Canada. "They've been knocking on the door for a number of years, and now they're coming in from the cold."

Mr. Colting and the 14 staff at his workshop in Newmarket, Ont., have attracted interest from the U.S. military, which wants to use airships for aerial surveillance.

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As fuel prices rise, and the changing climate makes winter roads impassable for more months each year, Mr. Colting is also getting more calls from people interested in using airships for carrying goods around the North.

His team has developed a small prototype of a so-called "heavy lift" dirigible, which could carry cargo and drop it off without having to pick up an equal load to balance the weight.

Mr. Colting said it will take 12 to 18 months to develop a larger model of the cargo airship and much longer before he can build a full-size airship capable of transporting the 20- or 30-tonne loads necessary to make the idea practical.

But he expects to attract serious attention when one of his prototypes demonstrates its prowess at the conference next May.

The Manitoba Chambers of Commerce passed a resolution in April expressing its support for the idea. Graham Starmer, president of the group, compares airships to the construction of Canada's railway system; it will be an expensive venture, he said, but necessary for the development of the North.

The next challenge for the industry, Mr. Prentice said, will be attracting venture capital, government grants and university research funding to expand the production of manned airships beyond Mr. Colting's workshop.

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Not only would such an investment help Canadians reach the 70 per cent of the country's land mass that has no roads, he said, but it might also open up an international market in countries lacking highway infrastructure.

"You're not going to see airships flying outside your window tomorrow," Mr. Prentice said. "But it might happen fairly quickly once this thing gets going. We're just at the cusp of something big."

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