At we are big fans of airships. A recent article at Txchnologist asks whether airships are poised to make a comeback in the commercial sector, but other recent articles question whether they truly make sense. Are airships a realistic possibility?
Writing a commentary about his own article, author John Rennie asks if airships really offer the benefits we like to think they do. Another recent Scientific American blog post is even more critical of the idea of airships for transport.
One of the eternal tradeoffs in transportation is the time versus energy cost consideration. On one hand, there is the cost of energy to move goods from point A to point B. Faster takes more energy, and is therefore more expensive. On the other hand, the time for a pilot or driver or other person to convey the goods has to be paid for, and a longer trip means more expense. The trick is to find the balance point between the two. This is, at least to some extent, what has driven the avaition industry away from propeller aircraft to the use of jets.
Trains are very efficient for moving heavy cargo, but train tracks don't go everywhere. A hybrid train and airship network might be useful to extend the reach of the current rail network without the expensive and difficult process of laying lots of new track. Trucks serve as the spokes for these networks right now. They are more expensive at moving freight than trains, but also more flexible. Is there room for that in the current transportation network? That seems to be one of the crucial questions. And, for now, the premium for trucks is not so high that other options are being sought.
The Scientific American article particularly focuses on speed versus cost as a tradeoff, but those are not the only factors that are relevant in considering airship, so the many current military developments are overlooked. Most present military uses under development are for long duration missions, where the simple lift of the airship makes it far more economical to operate than having conventional fixed-wing aircraft.
It may be many years before old, used military airships begin to be adapted for civilian uses, but we remain optimistic that airships will become a useful contributor to part of the transportation infrastructure of the future.
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