A California company will fly its Zepplin airship up Alaska's Inside Passage and all the way to Anchorage next year if it can line up sponsors. Lighter-than-air aircraft advocates say such vessels may one day be a common sight, delivering fuel or construction material to remote Alaska villages or food to hungry people on another continent.
S. Pete Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Center, said his agency is offering its expertise and technology to the fledgling industry, which has important applications for science and for delivering cargo to hard-to-reach destinations.
"Airships appear to us to be an industry about to take off, if you'll pardon the pun," he said.
Worden spoke Wednesday at the second Cargo Airships for Northern Operations Workshop, which brought together airship builders and representatives of mining, petroleum and communication companies who operate off the grid in Alaska.
NASA's roots, Worden said, are in aeronautics and helping develop new industry. Working with Airship Ventures, whose 246-foot helium-filled Zepplin is based at Moffett Field outside San Francisco, NASA has concluded that hovering airships are a valued tool for climate studies, earth science and astrophysics research.
They also fit the bill for a major new NASA initiative — developing "green aviation" that puts fewer greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than cargo jets, Worden said.
Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell said the state is a "ready-made market for airship technology." Alaska has 200 villages off the road system that need lower-cost cargo deliveries. Airships also could provide alternative transportation for industries that want to cross environmentally sensitive wilderness.
Industry expert Ron Hochstetler, who helped organize the conference, said airship cargo delivery is not competitive with trucks on interstate highways or cargo ships. Airship cargo's per ton cost fits between cargo airplanes and surface transportation.
The industry is at a tipping point, Hochstetler said. Airship cargo technology can deliver tens of tons, and customers have indicated that they are interested, but both sides need to connect on specifics.
"We're bringing that market closer and closer to the providers of the ships and the services," he said.
Francis Govers, special missions manager for Airship Adventures, said his company has planned a tentative route to fly its 246-foot helium-filled Zepplin airship to Alaska next June and will decide by the end of the year if it lines up industry partners. Cruise ship companies and documentary makers are possibilities for joint ventures, he said.