Filling the Friendly Skies With Hot Air

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When a massive helium-filled airship designed by Flying Whales, a French manufacturer, takes to the air for the first time in 2021, it won't be against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower. Instead, it'll probably fly over Jingmen, a dusty farm and industrial town in central China where Flying Whales and state-owned China Aviation Industry General Aircraft Co., Ltd. (CAIGA) recently announced they're planning to build an airship assembly line. Production should start in 2022 and could result in dozens of the giant ships -- each twice as long as a Boeing Co. 747 -- floating around the world.

Eight decades after the Hindenburg disaster turned regulators, manufacturers and the public against lighter-than-air travel, the age of the airship (mind you, not blimps, which are non-rigid balloons that lose shape when they deflate) is back. These slow-moving giants won't challenge modern aircraft for passengers. But, thanks to advancements in technologies including hybrid-electric power, they’re poised to offer a cheap, potentially low-carbon means of delivering cargo to and from regions of the world that lack basic infrastructure, including airstrips. China, with its ambitions to bring those areas into its economic orbit, will be a major customer for these new airships and a key player in shaping their future.

The collaboration with Flying Whales dates back to 2012 and a French forestry problem. The country has lots of trees to log, but many are inaccessible without building expensive new roads and airstrips to convey wood to sawmills. France’s National Forests Office, in search of alternatives, wondered: Could an airship that doesn't need to land expand the country’s timber harvesting area? Flying Whales answered by designing the LCA60T, a rigid-frame, helium-floated airship designed to carry 60 tons of cargo. Though it has yet to build one, the company has secured close to $250 million in funding, including from CAIGA, which owns nearly a quarter of the firm.

The Chinese government has made no secret of its desire to be an aerospace power and CAIGA has been aggressive in purchasing or partnering on promising new ideas and technologies. And investing in airships isn’t just about acquiring advanced technology. In theory, at least, the craft will address several practical issues that China now faces.

First, the new generation of airships won't be confined to conveying logs. In 2016, Lockheed Martin Corp. won a nearly $500 million order for as many as a dozen of its hybrid-electric LMH-1 airships (operational in 2020 or 2021) from a buyer who plans to lease their 20-tons of freight capacity to Arctic oil and gas companies. Leasing an airship is cheaper than building new roads across permafrost melting due to climate change, and roughly seven times cheaper per ton than using heavy-lift helicopters. As China and the rest of the world extend their search for raw materials into ever-more remote regions, airships are likely to become crucial links in logistics chains.

Second, airships can provide China with a cheap and nimble means of extending economic assistance, as well as investment through its signature Belt and Road Initiative, to regions that lack infrastructure for planes or even trucks. In the developing regions of Africa and Asia that are China’s primary targets, less than half of the population has access to good roads (lack of transportation access correlates with poverty). Flying Whales claims that the LCA60T will carry parts and machinery, including -- potentially -- wind-turbine blades (heavy-lift airships will have immense cargo holds). Generators, batteries, solar panels and even prefab buildings (China is a global leader in the prefab industry) could also catch rides. The delivery of post-disaster humanitarian assistance to remote areas -- an area in which China has become a major player -- would also benefit from airship transport.

Finally, a commitment to airships could help China meet its pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As far back as 2010, the International Air Transportation Association called for the global air freight industry to shift from heavy freighters to lightweight airships to reach emission targets. According to the group, airships produce 80-90 percent fewer emissions and, because they fly at low altitudes, don't produce heat trapping-contrails. China's air freight market is one of the world's biggest and fastest-growing; even a small shift toward airships would make difference in slowing the sector's emissions growth.

Airships aren't perfect, of course. They're slower than airplanes and helicopters (though faster than cargo ships) and their immense size leaves them much more exposed to winds and adverse weather than traditional planes. Helium, the preferred gas for the new generation of airships, is much safer than the hydrogen that burned up the Hindenburg but also substantially more expensive. And, finally, there is the problem of newness: The sorts of companies and organizations targeted to use airships have yet to sign up in large numbers. Until more become first-movers, the technology will remain niche.

The good news for airships is that China is fully invested, even as other potential customers wait for someone else to jump first. Though Chinese state-owned companies don't like to lose money, they will if their overseers see a political or long-term case for doing so. Looking forward, that case is buoyant.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.