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Airships Are Going to Redefine the Logistics Industry

Airships Are Going to Redefine the Logistics Industry

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By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University

An airship, often referred to as a hybrid, is a helium-filled winged structure. The airship’s wings perform exactly like an airplane’s wings; they give the airship lift when it moves forward.

But the airship does not require a runway or an airport to take off and land. It requires only a relatively small, flat surface such as a lake, an ice field, a highway or an open field. The motors on each side propel the craft forward to transport cargo and passengers.

Airships are here. They are undergoing tests in the U.S., Canada and other parts of the world to determine their practicality in the logistics and tourism industries.

Using Hybrid Airships in the Arctic

The Arctic regions of Alaska and Canada have been conducive to using hybrid airships for transporting cargo and passengers for decades. In Alaska, for example, these airships can move huge quantities of seafood from remote areas to the Anchorage airport for transport to U.S. seafood markets. Also, airships could fly cruise ship tourists to remote glaciers, rivers and valleys populated by bear and moose.

Airships Could Transport Precious Metals for Alaskan Mining Industry

The Alaskan mining industry could use airships to fly precious metals from mines far removed from any road system. Hybrid airships could become an essential element in many supply chains and logistics systems.

Use of Airships in Frigid Arctic Areas Present Technical Problems

Although there are many advantages to using airships in the Arctic, there are also a few drawbacks. Helium molecules actually shrink in size when the air temperature is very cold and the Arctic constantly has frigid temperatures. As a result, the airship’s aerodynamic lift capability could be jeopardized.

According to Dr. Barry Prentice, a professor of Supply Chain Management at the Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba, Canada, “research causes us to reject the idea of inflatable airships for use in the northern climate. The management of the gas in the wide temperature swings that we experience is a challenging problem.”

Dr. Prentice has not given up on the idea of airships for commercial use in the Arctic, however. He will host a conference in Toronto in March where eight different companies will discuss airship engineering and commercial issues in cold regions.

Where Are Hybrid Airships Now?

The Aerostatic Transport Aircraft of the New Type (ATLANT) is a hybrid aircraft for commercial use in the Far North, Siberia and the Far East. The craft is being considered for military cargo transportation to locations without roads, airports or seaports.

Other countries also have potential uses for hybrid aircraft. Russia is building an airship for military applications while Brazil is experimenting with airships for commercial use.

Could Amazon and Walmart Use Hybrid Airships?

The use of hybrid airships is no pipe dream. Amazon and Walmart have considered using these airships as distribution centers and warehouses that would float above urban areas. Amazon’s focus is on “an airborne monitoring station, or AMS.” According to the Amazon AMS concept, these warehouses would be stationed between 2,000 and 45,000 feet above a city. Drones would deliver packages to customers below.

Walmart has a patent for its own warehouse for a hybrid airship, which the giant retailer describes as a “gas-filled aerial transport and launch system of unmanned aircraft systems.”

Both companies are investing in this technology to meet the growing demands for faster delivery of goods. The use of airships is a novel approach to the more mundane transport ideas that most companies are investing in.

Hybrid Airships Are Here to Stay

Supply chains are very long, starting with thousands of raw materials and ending with a final product. That includes just about anything you can see or touch. Most people think of a supply chain only in terms of an item delivered by UPS, FedEx or the U.S. Postal Service.

The U.S. military has also experimented with hybrid aircraft to move troops and equipment and to conduct cybersecurity operations.

Lockheed Martin has developed a workable hybrid aircraft that shows myriad possibilities. These hybrid airships have captured the interest of business leaders in supply chain and logistics, aviation, and homeland security.

Educational and Business Research Issues Involving Airships

There are many unsolved problems in the development, use and regulation of hybrid airships.  For educators, this field is rich for research. The business case for airship use involves the areas of supply chain management, logistics and transportation. But among the possible research and business questions to be answered are:

  • Do airships help with supply, logistics and transportation congestion?
  • Do they increase and change customer demands?
  • Are airships part of the discussion on expanding or sustaining infrastructure?
  • Do they improve transportation services?
  • How do they factor in the cost of greenhouse gas or carbon emission standards?
  • What new policies and regulations will Congress need to impose on airship use for public safety?
  • Will hybrid airship use uncover a new logistics theory?

Preventing International Threats to Homeland Security

Blimps and balloons have long been used for high-altitude surveillance operations. Perhaps the new era airships could also be used for the surveillance and protection of government sites, such as the White House, the Capitol and the Pentagon. They could also patrol our coastlines to offer early warning of any threat to the mainland.

The Future Is Near

The use of hybrid airships is coming. It is here in selected research arenas and markets in the US, Canada and other parts of the world.

The U.S. Department of Defense is interested in military applications for airships, but they are not ready to broadcast their goals and accomplishments. The world of aviation was once dominated by blimps to carry passengers and to transport supplies to remote places. But the world of automation, machinery and mechanics came along and proved that fixed-wing airplane was a faster way to move people and cargo.

The world of hybrid aircraft will be a key part of air transport in our lifetime. That may be five to 10 years from now, given the continued research by private industry and the government, here in the U.S. and in other countries.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.

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