Global Trade of Perishables in the 21st Century: The Case for Giant Airships

The 12 second flight of the world’s first heavier-than-air powered vehicle in 1904 heralded the birth of a new transport mode. In the days, months, and years following that event, it must have been evident that airplanes had a future, but not its shape and extent. The first propeller driven airship was flown 50 years earlier than the Wright Brothers airplane in 1852i. A century and a half later, we may be about to witness the birth, or rebirth, of airships as a transport mode. For airships, it is not like the day after Kitty Hawk, but it almost could be. Except infrequently as billboards, camera platforms and novelty tours, commercial uses for large airships ended with the Hindenburg disaster, three quarters of a century earlier. For decades, the memory of the Hindenburg catastrophe, as well as technological advances in heavier-than-air flight, trucking, and maritime transport conspired to make the airship seem a slow, cumbersome, and ultimately tragic detour in the history of transportation. More recently, however, interest has been renewed in airships due to technological developments in a number of fields; including materials science, engines, weather forecasting, avionics and computer assisted design. With improved performance and cost profiles, airships are being considered now for new roles in the movement of general freight, fluids, indivisible loads, perishable food products and passengersii. Interest in airships has been heightened by their indirect advantages. These vehicles could mitigate several negative externalities associated with other forms of transport. Concerns about port, road, and airport congestion, and evidence of climate change have caused the economically advanced nations to reconsider their transportation systems. As most industrial countries are net importers of petroleum, the inherent fuel efficiency of airships is a further economic incentive. Consequently, many nations are taking a hard second look at airship technology. Over the last 30 years, airship technology has gained a large and loyal following. At the time of this writing, at least a dozen firms in ten different countries are developing research prototypes and commercial airships. In addition, the U.S. Department of Defense has issued a request for information (DARPA, 2004) for development of an airship capable of carrying very large and/or heavy cargoes and personnel. The creation of a new mode of transport can have unpredictable economic effects. Improved service and lower transportation costs can stimulate new commodity flows, industrial activity and trade routes. In this paper, we consider the business case for using airships to transport Hawaiian pineapple/papaya to the U.S. mainland. The inherent strengths and weaknesses of airships, relative to other modes, are examined with a 2 particular view toward exploring this possible early application of long-distance transport. On a more general level, it is hoped that this paper will stimulate thought and discussion about the potential for airships to create a paradigm shift in freight and passenger transportation.

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 Record created 2017-04-01, last modified 2017-04-27

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