Interview- Airships to the Arctic founder Barry Prentice

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April 1, 2012 by Dan Swinhoe

Last month you may have read our feature about airships floating into view and reclaiming their place in the skies.

This month, Dr. Barry E. Prentice, President of ISOPolar Airships and founder of the Airships to the Arctic, talks to ATE on the founding of his company and his view of the industry.

Airships to the Arctic are international symposiums focused on promoting airships for uses both in the north and the world over. The sixth one was held in Seattle last December, and featured talks on pilot training, weather conditions, new designs & models and mining in the northern territories.

“The focus this year was Alaska, Seattle is the US gateway to Alaska. We had several talks on the conditions there and also on the state of the ice roads in Canada, weather, materials and so on,” says Barry. “Clearly the Arctic is the best place to start, and Canada is very attractive.”

He explains the smaller ships, around the 50 ton mark, have the potential to find a market, whereas the larger ships (150 tons) would start competing with plans. “Canada is also a country with honest courts, trained engineers and pilots, English language and a large potential demand for short haul moves.”

So what inspires a man to bring together businessmen and engineers of machines that have been on the fringes of aeronautics since the thirties?

“We started the Airships to the Arctic in 2002 because other conferences on airships that I had attended were dominated by dewy-eyed historians recounting the glory days of the giant Zeppelins, and physicists who were trying to explain the 6 equations of stability. No one it seemed had any particular interest in actually using airships in commercial service.”

Barry had attended these dewey-eyed talks because he noticed the shortening of the seasons on the ice-roads of the north, and saw an opening for dirigibles. “When I returned home, I decided to organise a business conference that would spend half its time considering the need for airships in the North (the demand) and the other half hearing from airship developers on what they were working on (the supply).We are trying to bring supply and demand together.”

So has the endeavour been successful? “We have sensitised the Canadian public and those in Alaska to the potential that transport airships could have as a solution to their chronic transport problems. We have also caught the attention of the airship manufacturers such that Canada is recognised as the best first place for transport airships to get started.”

As with many new innovations, legislation and politics are left playing catch-up. “The Canadian politicians have been slower to attract but there is widespread public support and eventually they will do the right thing after they have exhausted all the other options.” He also claims the Canadian Government are ‘way behind the curve’ in terms of pilot training, as all airship pilots have to first obtain a hot air balloon license, which Barry thinks is akin to “forcing truck drivers to learn how to harness and drive teams of horses, and as soon as they are qualified they can climb into a tractor-trailer with air brakes and drive away.”

Low cost to build, long range and no need for roads or infrastructure at one end are all bonuses for their use (though you will need a big hanger to house the thing). Many see airships as the in-between choice of transport, cheaper than a plane, though not as fast, but faster than by land or sea. “[The] average cruise speed would be about 120 kmph. So not as fast as an airplane, but few cargo items need to travel at near the speed of sound, except perhaps a liver transplant. Airships would be more than twice as fast an any truck.”

Since it’s climate change causing the shift in weather patterns and how the ice-roads work, it’s a good job airships are a very green transport option. The only real concern for some are the reserves of Helium used for buoyancy. “Helium in airships is like the air in your tyres. Every once in a while you have to top it up, but it is not consumed like fuel.”

Things have changed a lot in the last 70-odd years since airships were a common sight. “Almost everything is different accept the principle of buoyancy. The materials can resist ultraviolet light, the engines can vector and not stall, modern avionics can be used, engineering tools, like strain gauges, and computer modelling allow engineers to predict stresses and build robust airships. The old envelopes would only last about 4 years, now they can easily last 20 years. Most airship accidents in the past were caused by structural failure. This was augmented by airships encountering thunder storms. With modern design and weather forecasting, these are no longer issues.”

It all sounds very good, but travel to Canada or Alaska and you wont actually see skies full of LTA [Lighter Than Air] vehicles travelling back and forth. “The biggest problem has been the lack of business confidence. Potential buyers are not sure if they will work, potential builders have difficulty getting finance because investors are uncertain whether or not they have a market. Everyone is standing around with their arms folded waiting for someone else to lead the way.” Again it’s the Government that has the chance to make a difference. “The politicians could break this bottleneck by using public funds to undertake demonstrations, but they are too timid by half.”

Away from Canada, the list of potential areas for operation is huge. The Amazon, the heart of Africa and the desert, Siberia, the Australian outback and island nations such as Indonesia all could be viable options, and it could only be a matter of time. “Airships will have a huge impact on world trade. IATA estimates that air freight accounts for 1 percent of world trade by weight but 40 percent of world trade by value. Many more goods would move by air if the cost were lower. In my opinion one of the biggest impacts will be an expanded trade of fresh fruits and vegetables. Europe could get delivers from Africa, South America and India. We might even get tomatoes in the winter that tasted like tomatoes.”

As with many new technologies, military investment is a great starting point, (see the other feature for some of the designs in the works) but commercial potential is big too. “The low hanging fruit is mining. Access roads are expensive to build and are a stranded asset when the mine is finished. Airships allow faster development while mineral prices are high. Reduce upfront invest barriers, the road, and allow smaller, rich deposits to be exploited economically.”

What’s the best way to get things moving in the right direction, to combat the stigma and hesitancy from the public and business alike? Simple. “We must get airships in the sky so people stop thinking of this mode of transport as a novelty.” So it looks like the days watching ‘Ice-Road Truckers’ may soon be at an end. “We are very close to a tipping point in this industry. Transport is a derived demand and there are simply too many uses for airships where nothing else will work for this technology to be ignored much longer.”

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