Years down the road, the sky may be filled with more airships than even your grandest steampunk dreams thought possible. Why? One of the biggest obstacles to mining in mountainous, desert and jungle terrain has been the complete lack of infrastructure in these areas. One of the most unpredictable costs in shipping is what fuel’s going to cost in the future.
Let’s take mining first. If you want to mine a rare material or in an inaccessible location, you have to build routes to that remote location. Sometimes that can amount to hundreds of miles of road and railroad, tearing up wilderness as you go. You’ll have to provide power that stretches the entire length of the road. Finally, you’ll need outposts along that road to provide maintenance, sustenance, gas, parts, and anything else such a long journey in rugged terrain requires.
How do you avoid all that? Airships, or superblimps. Long seen as that useless thing in the sky over football games, the practical application of blimps and other large airships has been pretty limited in recent decades. There’s simply hasn’t been much a blimp can do that an airplane can’t do better, faster, and more safely.
Yet with all those concerns – roads, power, support – making the cost of mining in remote locations prohibitive, many companies have chosen to forego remote projects, or have started them only to abandon them half-built.
What an airship can do is carry up to 20 tons of load in a single voyage. It can take off and land without an airfield, on ice, snow, or sand. It can help to establish camps by delivering materials by air instead of by road and, in some cases, move workers out to those camps.
There is a trade-off. While this means more locations around the world will be accessible for mining, it also means that roads and their associated environmental impact won’t be a factor in many instances.
Mining companies will be able to build in remote locations without cutting through forest or blowing up mountainsides that get in the way of a new highway. It’s expected that programs like Lockheed Martin’s Hybrid Airship may ultimately lessen environmental impacts instead of increasing them.
Think of the corollary in the lumber industry – specialty companies that cut down select trees in the wilderness without affecting the thousands of trees around them. This is preferable to, say, a lumber company that cuts down everything in sight, even trees that are ultimately unusable.
In terms of transportation, these airships can also deliver at a cheaper fuel cost than trucks. International shipping isn’t threatened because airships aren’t ideal for voyages of thousands of miles. Shorter-range, in-country trips once done by truck may be replaced over time by airships, depending on their success elsewhere.
None of this will happen overnight. These airships are still undergoing FAA certification, but they will begin operations starting in 2018. Nor is this a flash in the pan. Several companies are aggressively pursuing airship launches in the coming years. Lockheed Martin is joined by Hybrid Air Vehicles, Thales, and several other companies.
These launches will typically center around mining and supply in areas that are still wild, and these will be used to work out the kinks for potential future shipping applications.
If it can help move certain elements of our society off roads while lessening environmental impact, we may still see something resembling a steampunk future being realized. Of course, it’ll mean drone hobbyists become the new cyclists, but no technological leap is perfect.