This Is Not Your Grandfather’s Airship

When we think of transport for cargo, we tend to picture metal planes, ships or trains. We don’t think of using lighter than air transport, which seemed to go up in flames nearly 80 years ago with the Hindenburg disaster . But this generation is seeing a whole new kind of airship capable of speeds of about 60 miles an hour that can carry cargo to places that might otherwise be unreachable.

The French have been advancing airships in the Flying Whalesa program. Airships are a key component of the “ Nouvelle France Industrielle: plans for future transport. As explained here,  the concept behind the plans that were confirmed in April 2015 was to incorporate “nine strategic solutions” aimed at reindustrializing France, including the Disney Park-sounding “Transport of tomorrow.” As part of the national strategy, French airships are not just viewed as a novelty but as a practical solution “for developing a transport sector and other missions that are firmly focused on sustainable development.”

Now the French firm is reaching out to another EU company, t he ultracapacitor manufacturer Skeleton Technologies , in a partnership to apply graphene-based supercapacitors to the new generation of airship. Together they will build LCA60T, a 60-ton Large Capacity Airship, for the global transport market.

The advantage of graphene for supercapacitors is that they can store a great deal of energy and can be recharged in seconds over thousands of charging cycles. Skeleton Technology is the only supercapacitor manufacturer in possession of “ a patented nanoporous carbide-derived carbon, or ‘curved graphene’ to achieve global breakthroughs in performance, delivering twice the energy density and five times the power density offered by other manufacturers .”

What that means for the LCA60T is that is has the power it needs to handle the extended trips for heavy cargo. The graphene-based supercapacitors enable the airships to achieve the 3.5 Megawatts of power required to hover, lift, and stabilize even in the face of turbulence. That will enable them to convey very large loads in places that are not accessible to cargo ships or trains.

Speaking about the airships’ capability, Flying Whales’ founder, president, CEO and major shareholder, Sebastien Bougo, told Lloyd’s Loading List , “One of the big advantages we have is that our craft does not require an airport or a runway in order to operate, which facilitates the transport process considerably and opens up important niche markets in the heavylift and outsize cargo sector.”

Bougon explained the airship opens up the possibility of efficient transportation for very large objects. He offered the example of getting wind turbines in place made up of 45-60 meter long rotor blades. Using the LCA60T, the parts “could be picked up from the factory, loaded into the hold of the airship as a single shipment and delivered directly to the foot of a mast situated in an isolated or near-inaccessible location such as high up on hillsides – a far simpler transport and logistics task than at present.”

Beyond what the LCA60T can hold in its capacious cargo with a length of about 246 feet, it may be able to hold even larger items on long lines. An artist rendering shows the airship toting a complete house suspended below it on a line, suggesting a real life application of the protagonist’s house’s flight in the movie “Up.”

But thisis not just about a different way to get around; the airships are intended to solve a logistical problem efficiently and economically. Its capacity and ability to take on or discharge weighty cargo from a hover position would render it a much more cost-effective way to transport large loads via air than using heavy-lift helicopters. Also the fact that it doesn’t have to land and take off for its pickup and delivery saves on energy consumption

In Bougon’s view these airships “could provide a seamless, end- to-end transport solution for large plane constructors where a logistic chain is not already established or invested in, China being one example.” That could prove revolutionary for supply chains, opening up possibilities for locations that would have been inaccessible before.

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