A British company that has designed and built a large hybrid airship for the U.S. Army is trying to develop commercial applications for the technology and is targeting the Canadian market as one of its top priorities.
But first of all, Hybrid Air Vehicle (HAV) of Bedfordshire, U.K., wants to bring the airship to Canada for cold-weather testing.
Hardy Giesler, HAV's business-development officer, is on a cross-country tour trying to round up industry support for a Canadian test-flight program.
"We need to build presence in the country to be able to do that effectively," said Giesler.
HAV is targeting the mining sector as a likely user base and the company is building up case studies to prove its point. "So far it seems, certainly for new assets (mines) being developed, it is a no-brainer," he said.
Using a semi-rigid structural design, the airship includes both lighter-than-air helium and four powerful turbo-prop engines and requires no take-off and landing infrastructure.
In August, the version it built with Northrop Grumman for military surveillance purposes, which is able to lift about 20 tonnes, had a successful inaugural test flight in New Jersey.
But there are many more hours of flight necessary for clearance from the regulators.
The U.S. Army has shelved the project, but Giesler said he believes a good argument can be made to use the prototype to continue to develop a commercial model from which the U.S. Army could also benefit.
The hybrid airship model HAV wants to build for commercial purposes, called the Airlander 50, is designed to lift 50 tonnes of payload.
Giesler said the company is investigating all sorts of supply-chain options in Canada and elsewhere.
He said Winnipeg interests the company for a number of reasons, including the fact there are many communities in the province that depend on a network of short-season winter roads that heavy airlift would be able to augment. There also exists a well-established aerospace industry.
The airships would have a range of about 2,000 kilometres, making Winnipeg an interesting base of operation.
And Winnipeg is the home of Barry Prentice, the University of Manitoba logistics expert who Giesler said has become something of the unofficial spokesman for the technology.
Notwithstanding the fact HAV's project with Northrop Grumman became a casualty of the latest round of cut-backs in U.S. military spending, there is an increasing interest in the technology from several quarters, in particular the resource sector.
Adriaan Davidse, a senior partner with Deloitte in Toronto, works with mining and oil-and-gas companies.
Davidse is convinced hybrid airships provide cost advantages for resource companies with a desire to develop properties in remote locations that lack ground infrastructure.
But he said the large mining companies are risk-averse and are always skeptical of new technologies.
"Mining companies are enormously conservative and do not like to embrace anything new," Davidse said. "Here we are talking about extreme innovation... But there will be a period when smart mining companies, probably the smaller ones, will be more inclined to try things like this and will be very successful and make lots of money."
Among other things, HAV is looking to raise money to continue to develop its airships and, like any company with a radically innovative product, there are significant challenges to overcome before it can reach financial success.
But Giesler said thanks to the U.S. Army contract, it is currently profitable and maintains a workforce of 80 people.
Davidse said regardless of whether HAV survives to marshal the technology into the commercial realm, he believes hybrid airships will find a market.
"I have no doubt the technology will continue to improve and will be taken to the market by someone in five to 10 years," he said.
By the numbers
About HAV's Airlander 50:
-- 400 feet (121.9 metres) -- length of the airship;
-- 50 tonnes -- weight of payload the airship can haul;
-- 1,700 nautical miles -- range of the airship;
-- 200 kilometres per hour -- speed the vehicle is capable of;
-- 6 -- the number of 20-foot (6-metre) shipping containers the airship can haul (Hercules transport planes can carry two containers);
-- $75 million to $100 million -- the price range of Hercules and 737 transport planes. The Airlander 50 may cost in that same range;
-- 2016 -- the year HAV hopes to begin commercial production.