09/05/2011 10:00 EDT | Updated 11/05/2011 05:12 EDT

Arctic Airships: Discovery Air Signs Deal With Hybrid Air Vehicles

The idea has been floating around for years, but a deal between a northern aviator and a British manufacturer could finally see giant airships sailing through Arctic skies within three years.

"It's been the next big thing for a long time," said Rolf Dawson of Yellowknife-based Discovery Air, which recently signed an agreement in principle with the United Kingdom's Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) to develop and bring in the first specially adapted airships to the land of bush planes and ice roads.

"We're working toward a commercial agreement which will stipulate how many aircraft we're going to commit to buying, what the timing of the delivery and what the payment terms are going to be."

Airship boosters have long suggested that using lighter-than-air craft to haul equipment and supplies could change the economics of development in remote areas.

Airships require neither ice roads nor runways. Both are expensive to build and increasingly tough to maintain in the warming northern climate. Airships use far less fuel than planes and have massive lift capacity. The HAV design can haul 50 tonnes — about twice the payload of a Hercules airplane.

Until now — despite an active community of supporters who stage yearly conferences on airships in the Arctic — they have remained pie-in-the-sky. But the deal moors them solidly to reality, said Peter Wallis of the transportation think-tank Van Horne Institute.

"HAV is in the game," he said.

What's changed, said Dawson, is a new generation of airship design.

"Lighter-than-air ships, unless you've got them tied down properly, you're at risk of having them float away. This one is more stable. It almost has characteristics of an airplane and a helicopter."

That's because this airship is a little bit of everything.

Lift comes from both lighter-than-air helium and the wing-shaped body of the craft. Engines rotate to provide forward thrust and vertical take-off. Hovercraft technology along the bottom helps with landing and keeps the craft on the ground.

"If you put all those together, you get a hybrid," said company spokesman Gordon Taylor. "It enables you to do things you can't do with a (traditional) airship."

It doesn't even need a mooring mast.

"It can land and take off anywhere," Taylor said. "Anything that's reasonably flat — water, snow, gravel, ice, tundra, whatever."

HAV is currently building an airship for the U.S. military. Dawson says that craft will serve as a field test for the ships that come North.

The northern ships would have to be modified for industrial use.

"Our role is going to be to work with HAV on the interface between them and our customers to help design what our customers are looking for in these things," Dawson said.

He said Discovery hopes to take the first delivery in 2014.

There are challenges.

Airships are slower than planes, which means companies will have to hire more crew to fly them. They're also huge — the model that Discovery is considering is over 100 metres long and 32 metres high.

"If it isn't flying, where are you going to put it?" asks Taylor.

Regulatory issues need sorting out as well — although Taylor points out that HAV's airships have already been certified by European regulators, who have reciprocal agreements with agencies in North America.

Airships could change how northern development gets done, said Wallis.

"Mines use ice roads pretty intensively during the period of time they're available. With airships available on a year-round basis, it could affect the cost of resupply at the mines."

Remote northern communities could fly in supplies more cheaply, lowering the northern cost of living.

Airships also create less environmental impact.

"You avoid the big ecosystem impacts that go with things like building runways and terminals," Dawson said. "This thing just floats along the surface and doesn't disturb much of anything."

Taylor is confident that the airship's time has come.

"We're not going to replace helicopters. We're going to replace trains or boats or planes. We're going to fit in between where boats, planes and cars don't work.

"Like the North."