For more than 20 years the University of Manitoba’s Barry Prentice has been a leading academic thinker and writer on the potential value airships can have, most specifically on economic development in northern and remote geographies.
Over that period of time he has organized and held 10 international conferences on airships — about half of them taking place in Winnipeg — which have brought together leading proponents of the technology from around the world.
He formed a company many years ago to design a prototype and came close to completing one at the St. Andrew’s Airport until his small hangar and research operation there was wiped out in a windstorm five years ago.
Among other things, it has always been Prentice’s hope that Manitoba could become a leading centre for the development of this unique technology.
But now that his own research operation has been decimated, the one paid staff member of the company, Buoyant Aircraft Systems International (BASI), now works out of Ontario.
"As far as Manitoba goes we are soon to disappear from the landscape," Prentice said this week. "It is really sad."
The way Prentice tells it, the former NDP government "studied" airships for 15 years — "they would not have gotten a passing grade in my class," he said — and the current premier, although he once promised to meet with Prentice, has never done so.
Meanwhile, the Quebec government has invested $30 million in a French company, Flying Whales, with the expectation that some production of the massive airships would take place in Quebec.
Northern Quebec arguably has similar transportation challenges in the northern part of that province as does Manitoba, but it would be advancing technology owned by French interests.
Prentice’s frustration is the near-total lack of engagement Manitoba governments of both political stripes have shown him and the airship concept.
Prentice thought a Progressive Conservative government in Manitoba might be more receptive to an innovative solution to address poverty and economic development in the north.
But, the way he says it, "In the past five years we have not moved five millimetres towards finding a solution for the poverty and lack of economic development in northern Manitoba."
The French company has raised about 300 million Euros. (In addition to the investment from the Quebec government, it has also attracted investment from the Chinese government.)
Considering the fact multibillion-dollar infrastructure and energy developments are not uncommon, Prentice believes a $500-million investment would be enough to build a hangar — a major initial requirement, but a major stumbling block because it would have to be a structure close to three times the size of a football field — three airships and about 20 landing bases.
The landing bases, at a cost of about $1 million to $2 million each, are necessities required to handle the tonnes of cargo on-loading and off-loading just as loading docks are required to handle tractor-trailer shipments.
Prentice worries that with the increasing vulnerability of the ice road network in northern Manitoba because of global warming, political decision-makers are going to wait too long to commit to any investment in airships.
"I really don’t know why governments are so reluctant," he said. "An emergency is coming. If the variations in temperatures continue the winter roads will be too dangerous to use. And the airship technology takes time. If I had the money I could promise you an airship in five years but I couldn’t promise you one next year. Sometimes it feels distressing. The time is slipping away."
The impact airships could have on economic development and trade potential in parts of the world that are currently without any modern transportation infrastructure are undeniable. Meanwhile, the whole world has become distracted by eccentric billionaires indulging their pursuit of space tourism after billions of dollars of private sector investment has been made in that field.
But it so happens the airship business might have its own eccentric billionaire patron. Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, has been working on a secret airship project for about five years. Little is known about its development or even what Brin’s thinking is when it comes to deployment, but even Prentice understands such a novelty could potentially be the spark which would advance the technology.
It could provide the jolt needed to shift the almost irrational avoidance of any kind of government support or signalling of encouragement that’s needed to spur investment in Manitoba and elsewhere around the world.
"Airships may be the only realistic solution to economic development of the north and the end of poverty that exists there," said Prentice who has long believed it is an industry Manitoba could become a leader in internationally.
"If the U.S. can get a vehicle to Mars surely we can get an airship to Baker Lake," he said.
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.