U of M’s Prentice pumped by sale of hybrid airships

Originally published by Martin Cash on April 1st 2016 for the Winnipeg Free Press.

A Straightline Aviation hybrid aircraft is shown in a handout photo.

A Straightline Aviation hybrid aircraft is shown in a handout photo.

It’s a $480-million vindication of something Barry Prentice has been saying for 15 years.

Lockheed Martin recently closed a sale of 12 hybrid airships to Britain’s Straightline Aviation, a deal Straightline CEO Mike Kendrick said “represents a revolution in remote cargo delivery.”

That sounds exactly like what the University of Manitoba’s Prentice has been saying for years.

The British company that bought the 91.4-metre-long, 20-tonne dirigibles says it has customers in the resource industry lined up. All the talk around the world is they will be used to move cargo to remote locales.

It’s like that corny comedy routine where the self-styled hero parrots the line the smart but hapless character has been saying all along.

The concept of using hybrid airships to carry heavy cargo to remote locations with insufficient transportation infrastructure likely did originate at the U of M.

Prentice, for one, is convinced of it. He knows many of the Lockheed Martin executives and many others involved in the airship business.

“I am very proud of the fact that when people look it up, they will find that the first references were from the Transport Institute at the University of Manitoba,” Prentice said. “We were the first to start making the idea known and holding conferences. The only reason Lockheed Martin is looking at the oilsands region and the British company (who bought the airships) is looking at Canada is because we identified it as a market.”

It is a validation of sorts for Prentice, who has endured his share of snickering behind his back.

But over the years, some of the leading figures in the field have attended the U of M conferences, including Igor Pasternak, the CEO and chief engineer of Worldwide Aeros, a California airship company, the subject of a recent lengthy article in the New Yorker magazine.

Regardless of how much sense it made to use virtually carbon-free airships for cargo transportation that does not need multibillions of dollars worth of infrastructure costs, Prentice had a hard time convincing the powers that be to get behind the idea.

He jokes the provincial NDP government has been studying it for 15 years.

But the challenge in getting capital to back the industry was not a problem exclusive to Manitoba.

The fact Lockheed Martin is the manufacturer to make the first big commercial sale of airships is not surprising since it’s one of the few commercial entities anywhere in the world with the financial and engineering resources of its own to pull it off.

And while Lockheed Martin is the first out of the gate, there are others close behind.

Pasternak has designs that are close. A British company called Hybrid Air Vehicles — whose executives have also made their way through Winnipeg — has an airship scheduled for testing this year.

If Straightline Aviation, the British company that bought the 12 Lockheed Martin airships, has any semblance of success in deploying them starting in 2018, there will certainly will be a flurry of activity in the industry.

“Every industry goes through that kind of feeding frenzy. Some worry they missed that train and try to get on the next one,” Prentice said. “I suspect there’s going to be more money spent on airship development, which is a good thing for a number of reasons.”

U of M's Barry Prentice has been promoting airships for 15 years. KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

U of M’s Barry Prentice has been promoting airships for 15 years. KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

For one thing, it will likely take some time to figure out the dominant design.

The Lockheed Martin airships have a revolutionary landing system. All it needs is a flat surface large enough to fit the vehicle.

Prentice, a transportation economist and logistician, has done plenty of work figuring out designs and logistics for interface stations between the airships and the trucking of the cargo to the place the cargo is loaded and unloaded from the airships.

He figures over time there will be a handful of different airship designs that will be used for different types of deployment from pioneering exploration to regular daily cargo drops.

In time, Prentice believes airships will be moving freight all around the world.

For instance, most of the world’s fruit and vegetables will be moved by airships, not by trucks.

“When this industry matures, I would say in about 50 years, it will be as big as the fixed-wing aircraft industry is today,” said Prentice.

After all this, maybe people will start listening to Prentice.