The inventor who’s putting blimps back on the radar

Mr Burns is a test pilot for Hybrid Air Vehicles, a British engineering company that is pioneering a comeback of the dirigible behemoths of yesteryear with a modern twist that will make them both safer and significantly more efficient than their predecessors.

The Cranfield-based company, that struggled for years to be taken seriously by the aviation industry, has just signed a multimillion-pound contract with a Canadian firm to supply a brand new range of heavy-lift airships that will carry goods to remote areas of the Arctic, where roads are non-existent.

They will be used mainly in the mining industry to ship in heavy equipment and take away raw material from some of the most remote communities in North America. The first generation of 300ft-long (91m) ships will be able to lift up to 20 tons but there are plans for vessels that could lift ten times that.

It sounds like something straight out of a Philip Pullman novel ā€“ giant airships floating near silently through the ice-cold skies of the Arctic ā€“ but if all goes to plan we could see a fully built British airship crossing the Atlantic as early as 2014.

Hybrid Air Vehicles’ new ships are filled with entirely inert helium into a Kevlar-reinforced semi-rigid balloon that loses less than three per cent of its gas every year. The balloon itself is aerodynamically shaped like an oversized wing, providing lift as it moves forward. Four engines add extra power, allowing it to take off and land on anything from gravel, sand, ice and water.

Barry Prentice, a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba, builds, tests and studies airships. He describes the plan to supply northern Canada with a fleet of the vehicles as “a tipping point” that will herald the return of commercial Zeppelins.

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