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‘It’s a net zero cargo solution’: could Victoria become home to an airship renaissance?

They’re huge, can float through the air and are synonymous with one of history’s most notorious transport disasters – but airships could be set for a cargo-oriented, green renaissance.

French startup Flying Whales has a vision to begin manufacturing its airships – which instead of hydrogen, like the Hindenburg, will rely on 180,000 cubic metres of helium – by 2025 with an eye to gaining regulatory certification to begin operating in skies by the end of 2027.

The chief executive of Flying Whales, Sébastien Bougon, says his company’s airships would have a very specific purpose – transporting pre-built objects such as components of wind turbines or field hospitals, as well as cargo that is so large it must be disassembled or is too cumbersome to be delivered by road.

They also would not need to land to load or drop off deliveries, or have to rely on roads which can be either dangerous, indirect or nonexistent.

The airships would be able to float above cargo ships to pick up specific containers or other large objects up to 60,000kg, and fly them directly to their destination in one piece, at a maximum speed of about 100km/h.

From a regulatory perspective, airships, while uncommon, can fly through most airspace, however the implications of carrying suspended cargo are unclear.

Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority was approached for comment.

mid a global race to develop a new-age dirigible, Flying Whales is looking to Australia – and specifically the Victorian town of Ballarat – to be one of its global manufacturing hubs, alongside operations in France and Canada, to build its cargo airships.

Bougon is in Australia this week hoping to progress government and private investment deals to base his company’s Asia-Pacific production in Ballarat.

Flying Whales, which is backed by the French government, is also hoping to establish an operator in Australia that would take responsibility for the broader region.

Drawing a parallel with the aeroplane industry, Bougon likens the task ahead of him to “having to build up a company like Airbus but also an airline to fly them”.

“The proposal of Ballarat is making a lot of sense, in particular because it’s close to Melbourne and the coast, there is connection with roads and trains, and it’s an industrial place,” he said. “The government of the state of Victoria is very enthusiastic.”

He says delivering aid and energy equipment to hard-to-reach places and islands would be likely applications in the Asia-Pacific, as well as delivering specific cargo for customers willing to pay a premium to avoid delays.

Bougon acknowledges that using Flying Whales airships will be costly but says they can ultimately save money through the time and financial efficiencies of transporting cumbersome cargo to remote locations.

“If you can transport your containers or your high-voltage towers on an existing truck on an existing road, nothing is cheaper than that, [but] we don’t compete with that.

“Where we are useful is geographical difficulties, where you don’t have roads, or … if you need to change from road to boat and then to road, then we become cheaper.”

Costs aside, another benefit Bougon trumpets is the relative greenness of the technology.

“It is fully decarbonised, it will be electrical, it can load cargo from hovering so it has no impact at ground when loading … it’s a net zero cargo solution,” he said.

Guardian Australia understands talks between Flying Whales and the Victorian government are ongoing. Late last year, the chief executive of the City of Ballarat said the council was “delighted” to be discussing an investment opportunity with the company.

Flying Whales believes it has a slight head start in the race to bring a cargo airship to realisation, with Lighter Than Air Research, backed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, its key rival.

Other companies are also developing airships to carry passengers, with UK company Hybrid Air Vehicles working to develop 100-passenger, environmentally friendly models.

Dr Sonya Brown, a senior lecturer in aerospace design at the University of New South Wales’ school of mechanical and manufacturing engineering, said Flying Whales’ airship plans appear technically feasible.

“It’s about 200 metres long, so having these really large vehicles in the air as a common thing, especially moving a lot slower through a city where airspace is a big thing, it can be an issue,” she said.

For economic reasons, she said the technology would probably only appeal to a specific niche.

“It doesn’t to me seem like it’s particularly advantageous … I wouldn’t expect airships to be a common sight in our skies,” Brown said.

This article originally appeared in the Guardian.

Photo: Flying Whales

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