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University of Manitoba professor's airship dream closer to reality

Unveiling of the first airship built in Western Canada at the University of Manitoba Engineering and Information and Technology Complex.

Robert Tinker/Robert Tinker

When Barry Prentice started talking about using blimps to haul stuff to the Far North 20 years ago, people thought he was nuts.

"It was bad when I first started," said Mr. Prentice, a business professor at the University of Manitoba who specializes in supply chain management. "There's this giggle factor. You talk about airships and people look at you like you might have two heads."

People aren't chuckling anymore. On Monday, Mr. Prentice inflated the MB80, a 24-metre-long airship he hopes will be the first step toward realizing his dream of seeing Zeppelin-like aircrafts shipping everything from bread and tomatoes to heavy equipment to the North and elsewhere.

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"This thing is really starting to get the kind of credibility it deserves," he said just before launching the $250,000 experimental craft at the U of M on its first short flight.

Airships have indeed become a hot topic in transportation circles. Discovery Air Inc., an aviation services company based in Yellowknife, recently signed a deal to buy around 10 models from a British company called Hybrid Air Vehicles Limited. The ships are still being built, but they will cost around $50-million each and are designed to haul up to 50 tonnes of supplies.

"It's a way to solve transportation issues in a nontraditional manner that isn't harmful to the environment," said Garry Venman, a vice-president at Discovery Air.

They aren't the only ones interested in airships. The U.S. military is spending about $1-billion (U.S.) on airships for surveillance and transport. Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin is also working on variations of them for military and civilian uses, and last August, NASA held a conference on airships in Alaska that included representatives from shipping, mining and construction companies.

Prof. Prentice said climate change has been a major factor in rekindling interest in airships. Global warming has cut back the season for ice roads, which are a crucial lifeline for many northern communities. Climate change has also meant more mining and energy projects in the Far North, since shipping lanes are open longer. Airships offer an environmentally friendly option, he said.

They are also a lot cheaper to buy and operate. One C-130 Hercules can cost up to $100-million, more than twice the cost of an airship capable of carrying the same amount of cargo. Operating costs are also about half as much since the airships can often turn off their engines and glide with the wind.

Technology has also made airships sturdier and safer. The MB80 uses a special type of polyester fabric and is filled with helium, not the hydrogen mix made famous in the explosion of the Hindenburg in 1937. "They are actually a very safe mode of transport," Prof. Prentice said. "The truth is they are much safer than airplanes." He also said they can land almost anywhere with precision.

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There are still plenty of challenges. There aren't many hangars that can accommodate the giant blimps, and few have been tested in extreme cold conditions (something the MB80 has been built to do). There aren't many airship pilots either, or mechanics, or simulators, or companies that know how to build one. And they are still slow, travelling at 130 kilometres per hour tops.

Mr. Prentice has heard all the naysayers for years and he remains undeterred. He envisions a day when giant airships carrying 100 tonnes of cargo fill the skies, crossing oceans and touching down in remote places. "One of the markets I see emerging would be moving products like tomatoes from Cuba to Toronto, and that could be done in 24 hours," he said.

Ironically, he has only flown in an airship once, taking a 30-minute voyage in Mexico. "There was no sense of movement," he recalled. "It's a beautiful sort of floating means of transport."

Then he added: "My goal is not to be flying in an airship. My goal is to get airships to carry freight to the North."

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