Airships are ready to make their big comeback

Ever since the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, airships have been a largely abandoned technology, their continued existence consigned to being a quick shorthand for alternate universes in science fiction. But now, 75 years later, airships might be ready to return.

To be fair to airships, the Hindenburg blew up because its fuel was flammable hydrogen - something its German operators had to use because the US banned the export of helium to the Nazis - and so it's perhaps not the best representative of the technology's abilities. Then again, the Hindenburg was far from the only airship disaster, and the subsequent rise of faster and more reliable airplanes removed any clear need for airships. Now some entrepreneurs are banking on the fact that the time is right for an airship revival.

This isn't the first time that people have attempted to reintroduce airships, but there's a couple reasons why this time just be different. For one thing, technology is always improving, and the airships currently being built are more advanced than and sidestep a lot of the big problems that tripped up even airships from just a few years ago. Things like GPS and in-flight navigation have made huge strides in the last decade, and that could make the difference when it comes to the success or failure of the new airships.

There's also a much clearer place for airships today than there has been in the past. Part of it is a direct response to environmental concerns - airships are about as green as cargo transport is going to get, considering they are burning practically no fuel at all.

Developers say these airships will primarily go to remote regions where neither cars nor planes can easily access, including the northern reaches of Canada, the desolate frontier of western China, and various remote parts of Africa, Asia, and South America. The thinking goes that once airships demonstrate their usefulness in these isolated regions, demand for them will grow in already developed freight markets like the continental United States.

But these frontier regions represent a fascinating opportunity in and of themselves, and again it's an opportunity heightened by current economic and environmental factors. Consider northern Canada - the country has about 4 million square miles of land north of the all-weather highways. In previous years, ice roads have been built to allow winter access, but the much warmer winters have reduced their average operating seasons from three months to thirty days. Considering it costs more than a million dollars to extend a highway even one extra mile, airships could be a much cheaper, much more reliable alternative.

That's the theory anyway - it has to be said that the reality for airships has generally been far less rosy. We'll hopefully get to see fairly soon what these new airships can do. Lockheed Martin plans to debut SkyTug in late 2013, which has a planned range of 1,000 nautical miles and a payload of 20 tons, with the 50-ton Skyfreighter planned for 2014. More airships are planned for around 2020.

Via Scientific American.