Thompson touted as cold-weather testing site for airships Several airship companies are on the verge of launching prototypes
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A global airship supply chain does not yet exist, nor even are there any machines in commercial use, but early efforts are starting to materialize in Manitoba for this province to get a foothold in an airship industry that many believe will eventually materialize.
Other than the presence of Barry Prentice, the University of Manitoba’s long-time airships advocate – who, even he says, is now regularly ignored by politicians and potential public sector funders – the one thing Manitoba may have to offer is experience and infrastructure for cold weather testing in the aerospace and automotive industries.
Various stakeholders are now in the process of forming a task force to set about coming up with a plan to establish such a facility in the province.
At this point it is being contemplated for Thompson, the current site of the Global Aerospace Centre for Icing and Environmental Research (GLACIER) that tests Rolls Royce and Pratt and Whitney jet engines. As well, that city has a long-standing reputation as a good place to go for cold weather testing and several international automobile manufactures have used it in the past.
This week a zoom presentation, hosted by Prentice, discussing an airship industry for Manitoba was held to gauge interest in such a plan. It was attended by about 30 people, including a handful of federal government officials, a contingent of economic development people from Thompson, and a senior executive from one of at least four airship companies that have said publicly they are close to being ready to flying their machines.
Prentice made it clear that these are the very preliminary steps in an initiative that will likely take years to materialize. (He first broached the subject with economic development people in Thompson in 2006.)
But he also made the point that if something like this does not get established in Manitoba, it will happen somewhere else.
“No hangar currently exists to do this anywhere in the world and at this point none is planned,” said Prentice. “Put it this way, without a cold weather testing facility there is no future for an airship operating in the North. It is not something that would be nice to have, it is something that the industry will need to have.”
Prentice, whose own efforts to build an airship prototype was destroyed in a storm at St. Andrews Airport last decade, is determined to see his home province somehow become engaged in this nascent industry. He continues to host conferences on the subject that he has been doing for 20 years, including one scheduled for Toronto in October.
”It is not something that would be nice to have, it is something that the industry will need to have.” – Barry Prentice
It also aligns with renewed efforts in Thompson to market cold weather testing in that city after the pandemic kept companies like Ford and Honda on the sidelines for the last couple of years. A new economic development marketing agency for Thompson, called SubZeroNorth was recently created after a previous such enterprise was forced to close a few years ago.
But it’s also timely in that climate change and efforts to reduce the carbon footprint are becoming more intense. One of the potential strategic advantages of airships is that they could provide cargo and transportation services to remote locations at a fraction of the cost and environmental disruption of building roads through pristine habitat.
As well, a handful of airship companies say they are getting closer to commercialization.
Last month, the Quebec government invested $30 million into the French company, Flying Whales, bringing its investment in the enterprise to $55 million. Pierre-Yves Fouillen, a senior marketing official for the company who attended this week’s presentation, said the company is starting to build a hangar in France — an undertaking that itself may cost as much as $50 million.
Lighter Than Air (LTA) Research, a California company bankrolled by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, has signalled that it will be test flying its massive airship before the end of the year.
“We definitely see some opportunities for Manitoba.” – Volker Beckman
The British company, Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) has an “aircraft reservation agreement” with a European regional airline – Air Nostrum – for 10 of its Airlander vehicles by 2026.
Volker Beckman, a long-time volunteer economic development advocate in Thompson has helped produce a white paper, “Creating an Airship Industry in Manitoba”, intended to form the basis at least for the creation of task force.
“We definitely see some opportunities for Manitoba,” he said.
While the thesis for the benefits of airships has not really changed much since Prentice organized his first international conference on the industry in Winnipeg 20 years ago, engineering advances have fine-tuned designs.
Meanwhile, the societal need for airships — like dire conditions in Northern Canadian communities largely caused by lack of transportation services — have only gotten more acute.
Large airships, capable a hauling 50-to-more than 100 tonnes of cargo, could effect significant change without requiring extensive ground infrastructure.
In addition to Thompson’s reputation as a place that global companies have used to test equipment in a secure environment, Prentice and Beckman believe it is a good location because of the existence of large abandoned open pit mines in Thompson that could become possible sites for such an airship facility.
Beckman said that they have had meetings with local management of Vale in Thompson about the concept, but he said they are a long way from having the corporate OK from the Brazilian mining company,
Prentice said, “It is not like Vale is on board with this. Let me be clear, we do not have access or permission from the company.”
Beckman and Prentice are also well aware of the potential for other jurisdictions to build such a facility. With the Quebec government already investing in the industry, that might be a possible location and Yellowknife has started to compete with Thompson for other kinds of vehicular cold weather testing.
Prentice has had several cordial discussions over the years with provincial transportation ministers but has not been able to elicit anything more than rhetorical support.
However Transport Canada has an active airships file. Daniel Hebert, principal research and development scientist and engineer with the department’s multimodal transportation and logistics division, was on this week’s Zoom presentation.
He said, “Transport Canada is currently monitoring airship technology developments… and is also involved in regulatory discussions between EASA (the European Union Aviation Safety Agency) and the FAA (the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration).”
Beckman said he’s now trying to get more people in the province educated about airships and wants to bring a Manitoba contingent to Prentice’s Aviation Innovations Airship Conference in Toronto in October.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.