Lightweight blimps and airships running on helium are making a comeback as technology advances, potentially turning them into convenient transportation air vehicles to remote, inaccessible locations in Africa.

The blimp and the more rigid-shaped Zeppelin have been around since the First World War, when they were used as supply ships by the Germans, transporting provisions to colonies in East Africa. In 1917, the Zeppelin LZ 104, or “The Africa ship”, as it was nicknamed, marked a first world record for long-distance travels when it flew 6,800km in just 95 hours, spending nearly four days in the air during its return trip from Europe to Africa.

This image shows the Airship LZ 104
Image: Wikimedia Commons

However, the age of the airship appeared short-lived. In 1937, the German passenger airship the Hindenburg burnt caught fire in front of a crowd in New Jersey. That was when its main competitor, the airplane, took over the air-freight and passenger market.

Finally, a German company launched the Zeppelin NT (short for New Technology) in the Nineties, after decades of research and technological improvements that moved the airship beyond a colorful, logo-carrying advertisement artifact. And now the airship is again courted by various industries, from military to mining, and by basically any project requiring access to remote areas that lack paved roads or railway tracks.

Many of the new airship manufacturers since the NT are looking into developing hybrid models - deriving 80% of its lift from its helium envelope and 20% from motorized propulsion and aircraft type wings or by helicopter like rotors.

The business potential, once these new air-freight vehicles launch, could be interesting, given their high-load capacity, resilience in the air and versatile landing or docking ability. Many commercial models are set to release in the coming years, as covered by the writer Onyedimmakachukwu Obiukwu in an upcoming issue of Ogojiii magazine.

Lockheed Martin, a US aerospace company, has thus far spent more than $100 million and ten years researching and developing its LMH1 airship. It is over 90 meters long, almost 25 meters high and can carry more than 21 tons of cargo with its four 300 horsepower engines.

The ultimate goal is a commercial cargo craft delivering consumables to remote areas.

No roads, no problem. This artist rendering depicts the operational 20 ton Hybrid Airship in a remote area. The Hybrid Airship can deliver heavy cargo and personnel to virtually anywhere – water or land, in normal flying weather conditions – with little to no infrastructure.
No roads, no problem. An artist's impression of a 20-ton Hybrid Airship.
Image: Lockheed Martin

Ohio Airships, an American airship manufacturer, has a similar objective for its aircraft, the Dynalifter. The Dynalifter can lift 200 tons, travel at a speed of up to 260 kilometres per hour and land in just over 1,200 metres (a short distance given its size). Like Lockheed Martin’s LMH1, the Dynalifter is also primed for Africa, so much that the aircraft is already being locally marketed by South African firm, Airships Africa.

The Aeros, launching in 2018, is 250 metres long with high load lifting capacity, reaching over 250 tons. It will operate within a 10,000 kilometre radius at a speed of 220km/hour. Having funded the venture, the US military is a likely beneficiary. The heavy construction industry could well be another beneficiary. Lifting heavy windmills to the Lake Turkana wind farm in Kenya is an example of a heavy machinery industry application in an area with little infrastructure.

40E 'Sky Dragon' Airship
Image: Aeros

The advantage of using airships in remote areas with little road infrastructure to support development is clear. Airships could ensure the delivery of humanitarian supplies to remote communities. Delivering drugs in steady supply where otherwise impractical could save thousands of lives.

At the same time, the mining industry could use the technology to reach far-off mining sites, for instance to the Mbalam-Nabeba Iron Ore Project between Cameroon and the Republic of Congo.

The opportunities don’t end here: Google’s loon project aims to provide WiFi across Africa and Asia with the help of blimps and balloons showing the potential to reinvent service delivery to masses, for a lower cost than orthodox signal carriers such as satellites.

Blimp v Drone

In the midst of our current drone craze it is surprising that the seemingly endless applications haven’t been well capitalized. Airships can also be remote controlled and don’t suffer from the same excess of energy expenditure that drones carry with them. In fact, airships represent the only form of air transport ready to go carbon neutral instantly.

But airships don’t come for free. The cost of building large airships can be prohibitive. The entry barrier is considerable and could be a show-stopper for large-scale projects. Hybrid Enterprises expect a starting cost that would reach tens of millions of dollars for large capacity airships, whereas manufacturers targeting social aid organizations would sell them at approximately USD 1 million, the equivalent of an aircraft servicing medical supplies to few thousands. And helium has more than doubled its cost in recent years, reaching USD200 for a 500-balloon capacity tank.

Airships could be part of the answer to Africa's infrastructure woes - if the financial challenges are overcome. Far from an image of the past, they could again become massive industrial and social game-changers.