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Airships could be freight transport of the future

Commercial airships could be used as futuristic freight vehicles, replacing traditional aircraft and reducing the need for airport expansion, University of Oxford researchers have said.

Research undertaken by University of Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment director Sir David King and researcher Chris Carey showcases the potential of airship freight, which Carey is this week meeting with major aerospace companies to discuss.

Potential benefits of airships include their ability to take off from unprepared land or water, therefore negating the need for long runways.

They also have long range capabilities and high energy efficiency, and could potentially have a load capacity more than nine times that of a Boeing 747-400F freighter aeroplane, Carey said.

Their flexibility of route and landing place would give airships and advantage over air, rail and marine freight, and would negate the need for extensive road freight to and from ports and airports, he argued.

Airships could range in length from around 50m to 100m, said Carey, meaning they could be small enough to land in spaces such as football pitches, or could need larger landing locations to be built.

However, the development of freight airships is hindered by their maximum velocity at around 140km/h – slow in comparison with fixed wing aircraft, due to airships’ drag from their large gas envelopes. There are also concerns over stability in high winds, although hybrid airships – which use aerodynamic lift as well as the traditional envelope (balloon) filled with a lifting gas – are heavier and thus more stable.

Airships will also need to overcome the lasting stigma of the Hindenburg disaster if they are to become a popular transport mode. Airships have moved on considerably since then, said Carey, and modern versions are as far removed from the Hindenburg as today’s aeroplanes are from early aircraft “made of spruce and cotton”. Also the Hindenberg used highly flammable hydrogen and the new vehicles rely on inert helium.

Boeing has a rotorcraft airship currently in development with Canadian company SkyHook International capable of carrying a 40t load, while Skycat 220 freight vehicles capable of transporting transport loads of up to 220t are under development by UK companies World SkyCat and Hybrid Air Vehicles.

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