Are we about to see an airship comeback in Abu Dhabi?

Carbon-neutral flying has revived a technology first developed more than 100 years ago

Flying Whales LCA60T cargo airship
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The heyday of the airship was nearly 100 years ago, but the sedate form of air travel could be about to make a carbon-friendly comeback with Abu Dhabi at the heart of it.

Long considered obsolete, airships are increasingly being seen as an alternative to aeroplanes – the aviation industry is responsible for an estimated 2.5 per cent of global CO2 emissions.

This week, French company Flying Whales chose the UAE as the location for the final assembly of its LCA60T cargo airships, which are intended to be operational by 2027.

With a top speed of only 100kph, the airships are slower than jumbo jet planes but they present a much cleaner alternative, particularly when transporting cargo.

Powered by electric engines and lifted into the air by 200,000 cubic metres of helium, Flying Whales' large capacity airships can carry about 60 tonnes of cargo with a range of 1,000km.

Unloading will be easy too because the airships can hover like helicopters.

“It does not require any energy expenditure to overcome gravity,” says Romain Schalck, a spokesman for Flying Whales. “Depending on the type of mission, it will consume 10 to 30 times less fuel than a helicopter.”

The history

The concept behind the airship dates back to the early 20th century, when they became symbols of national pride.

Germany produced the Hindenberg, which could carry 50 passengers in luxury across the Atlantic, while Britain had the R101 designed for its imperial air routes.

But both met tragic ends.

The 1937 Hindenberg crash in a field in New Jersey led to 13 passengers and 22 crew being burnt to death, while 48 people were killed on the R101 when it went down in France in 1930.

Another 52 died when the French airship Dixmude exploded in mid-air, and 73 perished when the American USS Akron plunged into the Atlantic in 1933.

By the end of the Second World War, commercial aircraft had pushed out the airship with passenger jets able to reach speeds of more than 400kph.

Modern technology

Aside from Flying Whales, one of the most advanced airships is the Airlander 10, designed by British company Hybrid Air Vehicles.

Filled with non-flammable helium, it is capable of staying airborne with passengers for up to five days and is considered an "ultra-low emissions large aircraft”.

It suffered two crashes in quick succession in 2016 and 2017 at its Cardington Airfield base, but the company has continued to develop the airship for passenger and cargo transport.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin is also in the industry, unveiling the Pathfinder 1 at Nasa’s Moffett Field in Silicon Valley in November.

The prototype is expected to be the world's largest aircraft, powered by 12 electric engines at speeds of up to 120kph, and with a passenger gondola.

It is hoped the green aircraft can be used for everything from cargo to disaster relief.

Much smaller, at least in size, is Cloudline.

This South African company hopes its mini-airships can replace the work done by helicopters, because the 18-metre craft will have a range of about 400km while using solar power to assist the engines.

Cloudline estimates that each day of operation will save about four tonnes of carbon emissions compared with a helicopter, but has not yet given a date for the start of operations.

Swedish company OceanSky, meanwhile, is promising cruises to the North Pole with services beginning next year or in 2025.

It will offer luxury cabins, priced at nearly Dh750,000, for 16 passengers with cocktails and dinner before arriving at the Pole.

But challenges for reviving airships for mass travel remain, not least being where to keep these huge craft on the ground.

But with the issue of decarbonising the aviation industry now a hot topic, lighter-than-air transport is no longer a flight of fancy.

Updated: December 22, 2023, 6:00 PM