Jul 2016

Realising Stefansson’s Vision: Airships in the Arctic

The APPG for Polar Regions was pleased to welcome Andy Barton, Business Development Director at Hybrid Air Vehicles to Parliament to tell us about the fascinating opportunities emerging for the use of airships in the Arctic.  

The idea of using dirigibles in the High North was originally put forward by the famous Canadian Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson who, a century ago, envisioned:

“The Polar sea is like a hub from which the continents radiate like the spokes of a wheel […] When navigation of the air by airplanes, and especially dirigibles, becomes customary, the […] uninhabited Arctic will be like an open park in the centre of the inhabited world.”

Hybrid Air Vehicles are trying to realise this vision with the development of the Airlander, a modern airship which combines elements of traditional airship design with technology normally used in helicopters and aeroplanes. The result is an airship which can operate almost anywhere, including the polar regions.  

The first ever airship to fly over the North Pole was the N-1 Norge in 1926. However, traditional airship design is limited in a number of ways. They are difficult to control in high winds, need a large ground crew, and difficult to load and unload due to the need to maintain weight equilibrium (otherwise it might crash or float away). The use of hydrogen as a lifting gas added a further element of danger as tragically demonstrated by the Hindenburg disaster.

Since 1971, there have been efforts to address the traditional limitations of airships, for example, by switching from hydrogen to helium, using better fabrics, reducing weight, improving the flight control system and developing ‘vectored thrust’ (like a helicopter) to aid low speed flight and ground handling. The use of a dual-hull allows for aerodynamic lift (like an aeroplane) and enables modern airships to sit ‘heavy’ on the ground. Airlander has been designed with all of these elements in mind.  

The initial work on Airlander began under a US military contract, with a view to using it for surveillance operations in Afghanistan. However, the drawn down of US military involvement in Afghanistan saw the project bought by Hybrid Air Vehicles to continue its development for civilian purposes.  

In 2018, Hybrid Air Vehicles are hoping to demonstrate the Airlander’s ‘polar potential’ with its own expedition to the North Pole. The Airlander could revolutionise air transport in the polar regions, potentially offering a cheaper way to supply small towns and industrial projects, as well as search and rescue capabilities, oil spill response, and environmental monitoring services which utilise its very long range and endurance.  

Although it is still too early to say whether airships will come to dominate Arctic skies, the Airlander may prove to be an important first step towards finally realising Stefansson’s vision.