Airships are designed to be sturdy and cross great distances. The older airships, such as the Zeppelin, created buoyancy through the use of hydrogen. Unfortunately, hydrogen is highly unstable and can become explosive if exposed to static electricity or lighting. The Hindenburg disaster demonstrated how dangerous hydrogen was to public safety when an entire Zeppelin caught fire. The airships of today have come a long way since the Zeppelin era. Modern Airships utilize helium, which is stable and safer than hydrogen, to create buoyancy. To ascend, the ship releases compressed helium gas from its tanks to displace the air that had originally filled the hull. To descend the ship compresses the helium and allows air to refill the hull.
Northrop Grumman is creating airships for military purposes but Lockheed Martin and Worlwide Aeros Corporation are creating airships for transporting cargo. The cargo application, especially the Worldwide Aeros Corp., Aeroscraft airship, is appealing because it requires no runway to take off or land. The Aeroscraft can also carry 66tons of cargo, more carrying capacity than a Boeing 767, which can be transported anywhere in the world. There is no surprise that most of the capital investment behind these projects comes from NASA and the Pentagon. The average investment firm is not going to take the risk on an unproven and futuristic helium airship venture.
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This technology is important because this capability will allow large amounts of cargo to arrive in remote locations that were traditionally impossible to reach. This also means that, through the use of GPS technology, these airships can allow distributors to bypass old international transportation routes and deliver cargo closer to the customer. The need for special equipment and large diesel trucks will eventually become obsolete when this technology is refined and mass produced.
Why this is all important for the environment and safety?
1) This new technology is better for the environment. Unlike powerful cargo planes, there is no need for high fuel consumption jet engines and large wing spans to create lift. These new airships only need enough fuel to propel them to their locations and compress the helium hull for descent.
2) There is no need for the dredging operations that are required to maintain a port for large shipping vessels. In order to lower the cost of transportation and increase the profitability of shipping operations many ship builders continue to make their ships even larger than before. Larger ships require ports to perform more dredging which negatively impacts marine life.
3) Airships, unlike large shipping vessels, will not be exposed to the same dangers from pirates. Airships can cross the vast oceans and never once come in contact with a pirate. This means the crew will be safer and the amount of insurance required in the event of a loss will be much lower.