Sunday, February 10, 2008

4th Airships to the Arctic Symposium - Commentary Part 4

Todays fourth post of the Airship to the Arctic commentary written by Charles R Luffman of LTA Solutions continues with day two of the conference. You can read part 1, part 2 and part 3 to catch up if you have missed them.
The Conference – Day 2, Wednesday October 31, 2007

This second day of the conference, again chaired by Barry, primarily was for people in the LTA aircraft industry to express themselves. It had been interesting to hear about the logistics and environmental issues Canadians faced in the northern regions from the previous day but, for those of us involved in LTA technology, it was to be our day to explain what LTA could and perhaps be developed to do with regards to the needs expressed.

A key issue for LTA aircraft in the arctic, which they must be able to cope with, is the very cold conditions. So, to begin the day 2 conference, Barry introduced Mayor Tim Johnston from the City of Thompson, Manitoba, to provide the welcoming address.

Welcome (8:15-8:30 am)

Mayor Johnston’s address was not just a simple welcome; rather, it was an invitation for the LTA industry to consider Thompson as a centre for cold weather testing (to enable suitable systems and procedures for the arctic conditions to be developed) and as a hub from which operations serving the northern regions could be conducted. This was a bold, although well reasoned, initiative from Thompson, demonstrating their enthusiasm to help make LTA operations possible without delay. This was good news for the LTA industry that should not be sneered at, so let’s get things moving.

Mayor Johnston went on to explain that Thompson had unique conditions suitable for cold weather testing and already was set up for this due to serving most major companies in the automotive industry and some aircraft organisations for this purpose. He further explained that, due to major reserves of nickel (the largest deposits of the world) discovered to the north of them, they were developing significantly as a distribution centre. Their regional airport is the 2nd largest in Manitoba and they are being linked by road and rail as a distribution centre for many things. It therefore makes good sense for transport airship operations to be centred there.

Besides, he gave everyone a nice little commemorative pin depicting the City of Thompson. So we need a reason to wear it, OK.

Session 1: Pushing the Envelope (8:30-10:30 am)

Barry next introduced us to Vic Gerden, Executive Director of the Manitoba Aerospace Association, to be the day’s first session moderator. Vic was keen to point out that Manitoba already has a thriving aircraft industry, and with composite component development, that may be leveraged to help with new LTA aircraft developments – both for the supply of trained people and to help with engineering activities. It appears Manitoba (at least) would like to become self-sufficient in LTA technology, so there is scope for cooperation to help achieve this objective.

Vic’s first speaker, an LTA technology leader, who I personally wanted to meet and get to know, was Hokan Colting, the CEO of 21st Century Airships Inc. Hokan is a pilot with many years in the LTA industry behind him. He was only there for the day to speak about his efforts in Development of a new Sightseeing Airship. This was a rather interesting arrangement, of which he showed a prototype version in flight via a short film. Typically, Hokan had devised a simply arranged but unique airship with precise control capability that would be cost effective to purchase and operate – ideal for the purpose. Of course, people at the conference perhaps would like to have seen something bigger that could be used for transportation. Well, maybe this was a step towards that goal, since the sightseeing airship should enable good revenue and experience for a sound foundation to his business, which could then enable bigger things. It was clear that he takes a pragmatic approach to new developments, which has helped in maintaining steady progress.

It is not a secret that he is working on the development of other types (including for heavy airlift purposes) but he did not appear to be ready to say anything about these at the conference. New airship developments are rather expensive; so, until the pot of gold for big transport airships is made available, folks should not expect individual entrepreneurs like Hokan to stomp up the development costs themselves for new LTA aircraft with a lifting capability like the Hindenburg that they would like to have – the final achievement from around 30 years of steady, hard (not always successful) development. In my eyes Hokan showed us that he is steadfastly tackling issues (such as good control at all speeds), which many in the industry have not addressed yet, in a practical way and this should pave the way to better things. Otherwise, a regular injection of necessary capital would be a useful accelerant.

Vic's second speaker, Michael Schieschke, who I also had travelled from Germany with a view to meeting and getting to know, is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of ZLT Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH & Co KG at Friedrichshafen in Germany. A tall man with a law degree, Michael was there to relate ZLT's experience in Development of Geo-Physical Survey Applications - certainly relevant to exploration in Canada's northern regions. He also related an interesting project in Europe to monitor the atmosphere. Scientific equipment has been installed in a unit on the top of a Zeppelin NT and apparently is yielding excellent results.

Michael showed himself to be an excellent ambassador of ZLT, smart, articulate, attentive, open and well versed in the technology he advanced. Following his talk the delegates asked many widely ranging questions (not all related to the subject), which he answered freely, without hesitation. For example, he told us that a new Zeppelin NT would cost €10 million and have operating costs of €1,500 per hour. Used for tourism, the Deutsche Zeppelin Riederei (DZR) also were carrying 11,000 to 12,000 passengers per year, with ticket prices upward from €150 (I think), depending on flight duration. Also, the hangar in South Africa cost $1.5 million and yes, they were still in negotiation with De Beers for a replacement airship for the one unfortunately wrecked by a very severe storm.

With regard to Geo-physical survey, the Zeppelin NT was shown to be an excellent platform with precise control at all speeds that had delivered the results desired and with new diamond deposits found in Botswana. Michael also showed that it was a reliable aircraft, able to cope with most situations in a cost effective minimal requirements way. They also had devised a way to cope with extreme changes of temperature in Botswana between day and night, where the lifting gas (helium) would expand or contract beyond normal operating levels. Normal envelope operating pressure, he said, was about 5 mbar.

Nonetheless, the big question was, "did ZLT have plans to develop a large airship for transport purposes in the near term?" No doubt they are considering such developments, but the answer was "not at the moment". It all falls back to funding and the preparedness of those who want such aircraft to put their hand into their own pocket to help pay for the development. Until this is understood, it is unlikely that the LTA industry will take on such risk in the short term, since it must be an equitable shared situation. What was clear from Michael is that ZLT were making steady progress and intend to continue with manageable steps, as they are able.

Session 2: Keynote presentation (11:00-12:00 am)

Moving on, Barry introduced us to Dr Jon L Smith, the Director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the East Tennessee State University, to be the next session moderator. He was well suited to this task, since his current research is orientated towards transportation economics and international entrepreneurship.

Even so, Dr Smith wasted no time in introducing his speaker, Dr Robert Boyd, the Hybrid Lift Portfolio Manager from Lockheed Martin (LM) Aeronautics Advanced Development Programs (otherwise known as the Skunk Works). Dr Boyd also had attended the AIAA LTA conference in Belfast, where I first encountered him. Prior to his visit to Winnipeg, however, there had been false media speculation about his trip (LM being so secretive about their developments) and this had been upsetting for him.

Naturally, everyone wanted to hear about the P-791 Hybrid Airship program, for which LM had given him their NOVA award for his leadership as its Project Manager. But it was not to be, perhaps due to LM restrictions on what he was allowed to say. Instead, we were lectured on the topic of Delivering Value with Buoyant Aircraft.

This turned out to be a 2 part thing where, with his jacket off, he spoke freely as an independent adviser on the subject and then, with jacket on, he spoke as a representative of LM. I could empathise with the advice he gave with jacket off - effectively on ways to deliver value; but we really could have done without the stuff with jacket on - primarily LM HTA aircraft war systems. Perhaps Dr Boyd was obliged to relay this material, but the HTA and high altitude application was way off the subject of the symposium and, to many delegates, of little interest. Otherwise I felt his personal advice was useful and that he was well intentioned.

Subsequent to the Winnipeg symposium, a film and some information has become publicly available. For those who want to know about the LM P-791, one source of this material is at: http://airshipworld.blogspot.com

Lunch Speaker (12:00-1:30 pm)

As for the previous day, we all walked across the hallway to the Crystal Ballroom for lunch, keeping the show running through discussion around the tables. After eating, we were supposed to hear from the Honourable Gary Lunn, the Minister for Natural Resources in Canada, who was not able to attend. So, filling the slot, Barry arranged another speaker to tell us about Optimisation of Airship Routes for Weather instead.

Barry's speaker was Ron Hochstetler, a Senior Systems Engineer with SAIC in the USA. Ron has been involved with LTA aircraft projects for over 20 years, having first been involved on the Piasecki Helistat programme. Until recently he also was the Chairman of the AIAA LTA Technical Committee. Through his work, he therefore is a knowledgeable individual who has dedicated his time to the furtherance of LTA aircraft.

Weather issues are a rather important subject for airships, where ways to operate effectively are needed. Ron's talk, also given in Belfast at the AIAA LTA conference, was about an algorithm that could be used to determine the best route between 2 distant positions, harnessing the wind patterns instead of just driving against them.

Session 3: Making Cargo Airships Happen (1:30-3:00 pm)

This was a special session, arranged as an Airship Developers' Panel, involving audience participation. For this Barry introduced 3 panellists active in the industry, as follows: Gil Costin, Mirko Hörmann and Alan Handley. Rudy Bartell, the Engineering Manager of the American Blimp Company had been invited to be a panellist, but didn’t come.

Gil, who is an ex US Navy Vietnam veteran and pilot of both fixed wing and rotorcraft with considerable flying experience (including Artic operations), is the Founder and CEO of Millennium Airships Inc. He told us that his company was transitioning from being a developer to an operator instead, in order to take advantage of the new hybrid airships being developed by LM. They now hope to be the first operator of such aircraft for transport operations.

Mirko Hörmann is the CEO of CL CargoLifter GmbH & Co KG a.A, which is a new company in Germany with the objective of taking over from the previous CargoLifter Company, still in the hands of the insolvency manager. Mirko was one of the shareholders of the previous CargoLifter, who lost his money due to the company's inability to continue with the funds remaining without further serious investment. Regrettably, that didn't happen, but it didn't deter investors like him from continuing to believe in the need for Cargo Lifters and supporting their development. Indeed, he was there with senior members of Zukunft in Brand, the association formulated following the original CargoLifter Company’s closure as a support group, mainly for shareholders, to help realise the objective of heavy lift aerial logistics operations. The new CargoLifter, I believe now with the intellectual property of the old company and the lessons learned from the original company, and with continuing support, appear to be well placed to make it happen.

Alan, the third panellist and CEO of Varialift Airships PLC, is an individual entrepreneur (an inventor, businessman and industrialist, who also is able to do his own design and engineering work) from the midlands in the UK. He is self funded and is working on the development of a demonstration article to show how his Varialift system works. I believe the demonstration article is intended to show how a buoyant vessel with variable aerostatic lift capability may be used to carry a large heavy load - initially, 2 tonne. I also understand that Alan has made good progress with this and should be ready to demonstrate his method soon next year (2008).

Following a short introduction from each of the panellists, Barry then put 3 questions to them, which they answered as follows:

Q1 How can small start-up operations generate the necessary investment capital to pay for theinitial stages of technological development?
  • Depends on right time and circumstances.
  • Get a wealthy person interested.
  • Go to the public with the concept.
  • Build, fly and use for revenue.
Q2 Other than investment capital, what does the airship industry most need to accelerate its development?
  • People willing to champion the industry.
  • People who pave the way.
  • Meetings, such as this one.
  • Trained people.
  • LTA academy.
  • User friendly regulations.
  • Flight corridor for experimentation.
  • A need, customers and developers capable to deliver reliably.
Q3 Why do you think that the airship industry has not been able to take advantage of its inherent environmentally beneficial nature to generate public and private investment?
  • Need LTA aircraft to demonstrate.
  • Need united industry and lobby groups.
Following the answers to his questions, Barry asked the audience if there was anything else. Naturally, your commentator sprang to the fore with the following:

Q4 What would you like LTA support groups around the world to do to assist?
  • Increase membership to gain critical mass.
  • Associations should work together (cooperate).
  • Hold more general public meetings like this one, instead of just technical meetings for the members.
  • Help with more publications.
  • Look more to the future, instead of dwelling on the past.
  • Structure journals and magazines better with relevant sections (e.g. to deal with heavy lift).
  • Make little known organisations, such as the Zeppelin Association in Germany, better known and working in unison with others.
With little time remaining after these answers, Barry closed the session. In his closing remarks he also suggested that the media should be more often invited to report on such events. With this, he pointed out the camera team filming the proceedings and then, after closing the session, was cornered in an interview by reporters. I understand that the reports later were broadcast on the TV and in the Canadian newspapers.

Session 4: Where's the gas? (3:30-5:00 pm)

Barry's last session moderator was Bill Zuk, an Executive Director of the Manitoba Aviation Council. Bill had two speakers to talk about lifting gas issues, the first of which was David Limb, a British chemical engineering consultant currently working in Canada for Opti as an air separation process engineer in Calgary. David also had worked in many places around the world on similar projects and holds patents for cryogenic separation processes and helium purification.

David’s talk was about Helium, its Recovery, Purification, Transport and Deployment as an Airship Lifting Gas. This was technically quite challenging for lay people, but of great interest to those of us in the LTA industry, since we need to know the issues. David went into detail about the way helium is recovered. He also told us about its scarcity and the problems of extraction and supply. Whilst there is sufficient helium for current needs, if the LTA aircraft industry gets going with big types and in large numbers, there will be a need to consider alternatives for the future.

Bill’s second speaker was Dr. Dirk Spaltmann, who (since 2005) is a serving member of the Board of Directors of the German Initiative, Zukunft in Brand e.V. (ZiB). ZiB is the association of CargoLifter shareholders and supporters, promoting the re-structuring of the CargoLifter Company. Dirk studied physics in Aachen (Germany) and Cardiff (Wales) and is now an associate at the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM) in Germany. More recently (2006) he joined the German hydrogen and fuel cell association (DWV) and co-founded the Institute for new airborne transportation systems.

Dirk was there to tell us about Hydrogen Gas: Past and Future in Airships. His talk also was quite technical for ordinary lay people, but rather interesting for LTA folks, as he addressed in detail the Hindenburg incident. In addition he was quite informative about hydrogen and its use as both a lifting gas and fuel. His was a well researched and articulate account looking positively at the issues. No doubt there is a lot of work to do to dispel myths, overcome false notions and political circumstances arising from the Hindenburg’s fiery end. However, this was one of the first rationally reasoned accounts that I had heard addressing the subject in a responsible way. I hope to hear more.
And this completes part 4 there is a little bit more that we will put into part 5 we will also feature a lot of links and additional reading material in the next part, allowing you to delve deeper into the subject. Airshipworld has reported on may of the projects and subjects mentioned during the Symposium and we will continue. Where there any talks that you want us to cover more in detail? The new Cargolifter or the possibilities of using Hydrogen in airships again? Please post a comment on the Blog or send us an email.

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