Airships – Cargo Vessels of the Future?

Airships are one of those rare vehicles that at once conjure images of old-fashioned blimps and super-futuristic space vessels, but are very rarely associated with any practical uses in the present day.

An artist's impression of a cargo airship at an Arctic oil rig. (AP Photo/Discovery Air Innovations)

That all might be set to change, however, as a group of researchers, policymakers, developers and financial backers met in Anchorage last week to discuss airships as a possible solution for transporting cargo across Alaska.

This might come as a surprise to most people, as blimps these days are mainly seen being used as gimmicky brand promotions or tourist viewing platforms.

What people don’t know is that airships present a practical and environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional cargo planes in areas where building runways is not always feasible or desirable, as they are capable of vertical take-offs and landings.

They can also travel for days or weeks at a time before refuelling, and can hold cargo loads weighing thousands of pounds.

And if you’ve still got an image of a traditional blimp in your head, think again, as the new generation of airships have been conceived by NASA’s Ames Research Center following interest from the U.S. Department of Defence in the transport potential of airships.

Pete Worden, director of the research centre, said that despite their old-fashioned image, airships are just one example of an outdated mode of transportation which could find new uses thanks to modern technology.

One other example is renewed interest in cargo ships equipped with sails to make use of wind power, which unlike fuel engines costs nothing to run.