Recent controversy about the Quebec government investing $30 million in a French airship company was like catnip for University of Manitoba logistics professor and world renowned airship expert, Barry Prentice.
Prentice has been studying airships, talking to people about airships all over the world and holding an annual conference about using airships in the North, for about 15 years.
The fact the Quebec government — or any institution, for that matter — would invest in a company developing such technology is encouraging for Prentice and likely anyone else who believes airships can solve many of the problems associated with northern development in Canada.
It is not, however, any guarantee that such hybrid lighter-than-air vessels will be floating across the skyline anytime soon.
It has taken Lockheed Martin, a company with as much technical/regulatory/financial wherewithal as any company on earth, more than 20 years to design, build and certify its version of a hybrid airship. But commercial production still has not begun.
With such massive barriers to entry — just designing a certification process with the Federal Aviation Administration took years — and the potential for significant benefits to society, Prentice believes this is exactly the kind of investment governments should be making.
"Somehow Canadians got the idea there was no need for governments to take on the risky effort of nation building," Prentice said, "If the current politicians were around during John A. Macdonald’s time, the last spike would have been driven just a little west of Toronto."
No doubt any investment in any airship company today would be a risky proposition. There are a handful of companies developing commercial versions of cargo-hauling airships including Lockheed Martin. Flying Whales, the French company that now intends to build a production facility in Quebec in the next couple of years, has not yet built its first vessel.
Prentice believes the investment in Flying Whales by the government of Quebec — which was preceded by investments by the French and Chinese governments — is the first time in more than 80 years that any governments have invested in a civilian airship.
With its partnership with that company, Quebec will become of strategic interest to the nascent industry. It may well also become the site of one of the very first airship construction hangars in the world, and it may also become the region where one of the first commercial test cases take place.
That’s because the owner of a potential rare earth mine north of Schefferville, Que., has an agreement to provide air services for the transport of ore concentrate, supplies and personnel using Lockheed Martin’s hybrid airships. The plan is for the airships to shuttle between the mine in northern Quebec and Schefferville, a town with a direct rail link to the Port of Sept-Iles.
Regardless of Prentice’s passionate advocacy of airships, he is first and foremost a logistics expert and understands transportation networks. He believes when it comes to government support of one industry or another, transportation networks are different.
"It’s not like the furniture business where the private sector does stuff and the government looks on and collects taxes," he said. "Government has to be involved. It provides the infrastructure and regulates the sector. Trucks don’t provide the roads. The airlines don’t provide the airports."
Since it was the fiery crash of the Hindenburg 80-plus years ago that effectively ended the first era of airships, it seems natural government regulation would need to be in place to ensure safety if airships are to have another crack at commercial operation.
"It is a brand new transportation system," said Prentice. "If it does not get public support then the investor is left to take all the risk of a brand new system and that is a lot of risk. That is what has held back the industry."
It may not be the only thing that has held the industry back. There is still plenty of debate as to what the optimum technical design ought to be and there is still little substantial planning as to what the landing base will look like.
Even Prentice, who has seen plenty of aborted airship attempts over the years, believes current developments are encouraging.
"I am hopeful this will lead to more," he said. "My view has always been that once the first big airship flies everyone will say. ‘Oh, that’s what we’re talking about.’ Then there will be lots who want to invest in it."
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.