Airships a Real Solution for Northern First Nations

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

First Nations in northern Manitoba are finally seriously considering another solution to deal with their isolation.

The next wave of the future for transporting goods to the north still might be in airships and hybrid air vehicles.

A group of northern First Nations has invited airship experts from around the world to a conference in the province next month. Let’s hope they listen closely to what the experts are saying. The meeting will be held on Oct. 9 and 10.

There is hope that this technology could help with the problem of winter roads up north. I have written about this in the past in these pages but it bears repeating, especially as we approach another winter.

Last year, northern Manitoba faced the consequences of a warmer winter. On average, winter roads were available 56 days a year. In 2012, the season lasted 53 days. Problems were noticed in late 2011 when equipment got caught in the muskeg. In one case, a bulldozer and a track hoe got stuck in muskeg about 16 km outside of Wasagamack.

Without that long window of opportunity, trucks cannot bring in goods for these communities. Instead, costly airplanes have to bring them in.

With airships, private operators can bring in goods year round.

Barry Prentice, an economist at the University of Manitoba, has written for the Frontier Centre about the use of airships. With colder air providing added lift to these airships, observers see them as ideal for northern climates. They are capable of carrying a larger cargo than conventional airplanes as well. Many hope governments can utilize them to bring fresh food to First Nations communities.

Fred Edworthy, vice-president business development for Worldwide Aeros, a company building a prototype cargo airship, has said that airships can provide transport at one-third the cost of fixed wing aircraft. It is also claimed that airships burn 80-90% less fuel than equivalent fixed wing aircraft.

Edworthy also said that the government can help. They can help with financial guarantees to reduce the investment risk. Airships cost millions. The government can also assist with regulations by introducing legislation that eases manufacturing and operation of airships.

It’s not like government is unaware of the airship option. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities released a report earlier this year that suggested the time is right to consider the option. The committee’s first recommendation was for government to consider a pilot project, involving the transport of non-urgent goods to remote communities.

The second recommendation was that this test run should be operated on a commercial basis and payment should only follow successful delivery. Another recommendation involved allowing air transport companies to bid on federal contracts once government proves the technology is safe.

Using airships as opposed to other options should be a simple cost-benefit analysis. Governments should consider them against the cost of building and maintaining increasingly unreliable winter roads, as well as other options.

Some private companies are also interested in the idea. In late August, an aviation company in the Northwest Territories signed an agreement with a British company to buy a fleet of blimps to haul cargo and supplies in the north.

Perhaps we are not too far from realizing this potential of this new technology.