Could Blimps Replace Planes For Cargo?

Could slow-moving but efficient blimps replace air planes for moving cargo around the world? The British government's former chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir David King, now director of the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at the University of Oxford, recently told a conference that massive helium balloons – or blimps – would replace aircraft as a key part of the global trade network as a way of cutting global warming emissions.


(Airship freight carrier by German company CargoLifter)

"There are an awful lot of people we talk to who say this is going to happen," said King. "This is something I believe is going to happen."

Airships would be too slow for some high-speed airfreight, and would not be needed to carry the majority of cargo for which much slower ships are suitable. But with a speed of 125kph (78mph), and much lower fuel costs, plus a carrying capacity potentially many times that of a standard Boeing 747 plane, blimps could in future carry much of current air freight.

A recent report on mobility by the Smith School, for example, quoted an estimate by one developer, UK-owned SkyCat, that it could carry twice the weight of strawberries from Spain to the UK of a standard cargo plane, with a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, much of which is from avoiding the huge fuel burn a jet engine uses to take off.

Science fiction writers still like blimps, even though they've declined in popularity over the last eighty years. For example, see this excerpt from Paolo Bacigalupi's excellent 2010 novel The Windup Girl:

At the next anchor pad, 200 meters away, megadonts scream as they drag cargo out of a dirigible's belly and pile the shipment for sorting and Customs approval. Turbofans gust and surge, stabilizing the vast airship anchored overhead. The balloon lists and spins...

Fans of Jerry Pournelle may recall the Skyhook from his 1976 story West of Honor.

Float gently into the future with these recent blimp-related stories:

From the Guardian.

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