Authors: Philip Burns-O’Brien and Dr. Grant Cool
Hybrid airships are the future of aviation technology. Capable of operating all over the globe, including in the most remote and inaccessible locations, these innovative aircraft offer a practical solution for transporting cargo and other critical supplies. At the same time, they minimize the environmental and social impacts of transportation.
Compared to other modes of transport, hybrid airships have significant advantages. They do not require large and secure landing sites or expensive infrastructure. They are not contingent on seasonal weather conditions like ice roads and seaways, and their use of Helium and an aerodynamic wing design for lift make them inherently safe. Further, using new propulsion technologies, they can operate with zero emissions.
In short, modern hybrid airships are uniquely suitable as a cost-effective transportation option and as an additional tool for maintaining Arctic sovereignty.
Hybrid airships generate zero carbon emissions.
The Arctic region, defined as north of the Arctic Circle, covers about 20 million square kilometres of land and sea. Consisting of the Arctic Ocean and parts of Canada, Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States,1 the area is vast, isolated, harsh, and sparsely populated with limited infrastructure and communication. However, it is also a landscape rich in Indigenous peoples and cultures, resources, and natural beauty — making it a unique ecosystem worth preserving.
The region offers territorial strategic value. Canada, for example, sees the Arctic as central to its national identity, prosperity, security, values, and interests. As such, the country has a long-term vision with a well-defined Arctic and Northern Policy Framework that provides direction for the federal government’s priorities, activities, and investments in the area.2
There is also increasing interest and competition for natural resources in the Arctic. Critical and strategic minerals, such as lithium, graphite, rare earth elements, phosphate, bauxite, iron ore, copper, nickel, and diamonds, present economic opportunities for nation-states and commercial enterprises.
With global warming and the ice melting, the Arctic seaways are opening up. This enables more shipping traffic, which puts the region at risk of “unauthorized or unregulated transits and illegal activities.”3
For all these reasons, Canada and other Arctic nations recognize that maintaining the sovereignty, safety, security, and environmental protection of the Arctic region is vital.
The maintenance of Arctic sovereignty takes many forms, from in-person human activities to increasingly sophisticated technological solutions. Unfortunately, each existing method comes with considerable challenges, leaving gaps that need to be remedied by Canada and other Arctic nations.
The primary method for maintaining Arctic sovereignty, and one that is critical to Canada’s efforts in the region, is a physical presence. In the Arctic, Canada has more than 50 northern communities, made up of approximately 200,000 inhabitants, more than half of whom are Indigenous.4
However, despite their significance for Canadian sovereignty, the people who live in these far-flung communities “face significant socio-economic challenges, such as overcrowding, food scarcity, chronic health issues, and high rates of youth suicide.”5 Without access to year-round affordable and reliable cargo transportation and government support, these conditions will persist.
Military bases and research stations are another form of physical presence employed by Canada as part of its Arctic strategy. As with the residential communities, these stations need ready access to transportation and face similar challenges. Access routes are expensive to build and maintain, and they are dependent on weather conditions.6
Satellites are a key component of Canada’s Arctic strategy. They are used for tracking ship positions and avoiding collisions. They also aid in search and rescue missions, and in measuring and tracking changing environmental conditions to the ice, ocean, and land.
According to an independent auditor’s report in 2022, satellites and equipment are nearing the end of useful service life. This is resulting in weaknesses in Canada’s satellite surveillance capabilities.7
Canada’s Space Agency also reports that there are gaps in satellite coverage. While low Earth orbit satellites can see the Arctic and have good spatial resolution, they are not capable of “reporting on atmosphere and surface details as frequently as the Arctic Observing Mission would.” The agency goes on to say that “Geostationary satellites currently orbiting Earth’s equator . . . cannot see above the 60 degrees North latitude.”8
Traditional fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters are used for monitoring marine traffic, search and rescue, and transportation of people and equipment to Arctic bases and Indigenous communities. Remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) — drones — are also used for monitoring activities.
While these are a vital part of Canada’s Arctic strategy, they are subject to inclement weather and require expensive permanent supporting infrastructure, including airports and landing strips. The independent auditor’s report also reveals that patrol aircraft are reaching the end of their useful lives.9
Icebreakers, including a Canadian Coast Guard fleet of 19 vessels,10 are another key component of the country’s Arctic strategy. These ships are used for charting missions, policing, and search and rescue.
However, the independent auditor’s report suggests that these vessels are aging, with six vessels between 35 and 53 years old. To extend their service life, the federal government plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years, with the first of six new icebreakers expected to be delivered by 2030.11
The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) are tasked with defending Canada’s sovereignty and security. In the Arctic, the CAF sustains a year-round presence, with 300 full-time military personnel and over 1,700 Canadian Rangers. Together, these forces provide capabilities in threat detection, surveillance, and domain awareness.12
While well-trained and able to provide a rapid and agile response, the CAF is hampered by operational limitations, including the difficulties of moving and surviving in the northern environment, and the need for better communications and equipment.13
Canada also partners with the United States to operate the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), providing remote radar sites, fighter aircraft, and other assets in the Arctic. Further investment is required to bolster NORAD capabilities in five areas: detecting threats; understanding and communicating threats; deterring and defeating aerospace threats; launching and sustaining a strong military presence; and future-proofing defence capabilities.14
In summary, each of these current methods is a necessary component of a complete strategy for Canada and other Arctic nations wanting to ensure the safety, security, and sovereignty of the region. Nevertheless, gaps remain in supporting these assets and in delivering the capabilities the region relies on.
Existing methods are:
- Contingent on appropriate weather conditions and not available year-round.
- Aging and, in some cases, reaching the end of useful service life.
- Expensive to build, maintain, or replace.
Also, existing methods do not:
- Provide full surveillance coverage of the area.
- Meet the day-to-day needs of people living in northern communities.
Beyond these serious limitations, existing transportation methods do not support the United Nations Sustainable Development15 and Canadian 2050 net-zero emissions16 goals. They burn enormous amounts of greenhouse gases, use non-renewable resources, and pollute the very environment that Canada and other Arctic nations seek to protect.
Fortunately, modern hybrid airships offer a safe viable solution.
According to the independent auditor’s report, the Canadian government has not addressed long-standing gaps affecting its surveillance of Canada’s Arctic waters, such as outdated equipment, insufficient data, poor information sharing, and delayed renewal of assets.17
A fleet of hybrid airships could help Canada and other Arctic nations supplement existing methods for reinforcing the safety, security, sovereignty, and environmental protection of the Arctic region — and with minimal environmental and social impact.
Clean, efficient, and affordable, hybrid airships are:
- Capable of operating almost anywhere, including in the most remote and inaccessible locations. With an air cushion landing system, which works like a hovercraft, hybrid airships can land and take off from almost any location, even open water, and do not require tethering. Plus, with a range of more than 2,400 kilometres, they can provide faster cargo transportation than land and sea alternatives.
- Resilient to atmospheric conditions, including wind, cold, ice, snow, and heat. Hybrid airships can be used in the depths of winter and the heights of summer, and require no seasonally-dependent infrastructure, such as ice roads or open seaways.
- Safe and quiet, with simple operator controls. Combining buoyancy lift from Helium and a new aerodynamic design with propulsion from electric motors controlling the speed and direction, the laws of physics make hybrid airships extremely safe. Also, because they are quiet, hybrid airships are ideal for use in noise-sensitive locations.
- Suitable for transporting heavy payloads. With large-volume cargo bays, hybrid airships are a cost-effective solution for transporting equipment and supplies to communities that are under-served by traditional transportation options.
- Fuel efficient with zero carbon emissions. Using innovative buoyant lift technology and electric engines fueled by hydrogen fuel cells, modern hybrid airships are fuel-efficient, with zero emissions.
Hybrid airships have the potential to unlock solutions to some of the most pressing challenges facing Canada and other Arctic nations. In fact, they could reshape our approach to a wide range of critical concerns in the North. For example, they have the capacity to:
- Enhance food security. The isolation of many Arctic communities poses significant challenges to food security for people living and working there. Hybrid airships can provide a lifeline by transporting essential supplies, including fresh food and medical necessities, to these remote locations. By reducing dependence on seasonal ice roads or costly airlifts, airships can ensure that Arctic communities have a stable and affordable source of sustenance.
- Broaden access to health care and disaster relief. Remote Arctic communities often struggle to access adequate healthcare and disaster relief services. Hybrid airships can serve as mobile medical facilities, transporting doctors, nurses, and medical supplies to areas in need during emergencies. They can also be rapidly deployed to provide assistance in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as floods, forest fires, or earthquakes.
- Extend marine shipping surveillance. The Arctic Ocean is witnessing a surge in maritime activity as melting ice opens up new shipping routes. Monitoring this traffic is vital for preventing environmental disasters and protecting fragile ecosystems. Hybrid airships equipped with advanced sensors and cameras can maintain constant surveillance over these waters, effectively enforcing regulations and responding swiftly to potential oil spills or other emergencies.
- Improve search and rescue capabilities. The vastness and harsh conditions of the Arctic make search and rescue operations particularly challenging. Hybrid airships, with their ability to cover large areas and hover over remote regions, can significantly enhance search and rescue capabilities. Equipped with thermal imaging and communication equipment, they can locate missing persons or vessels quickly, even in extreme weather conditions.
- Safeguard Arctic sovereignty. For Canada, Arctic sovereignty has long been a point of national pride and concern. With the region’s increasing accessibility, maintaining control over this vast territory is more crucial than ever. Hybrid airships can serve as aerial command centres, conducting surveillance, monitoring activity, and swiftly responding to potential threats.
“Airships are an ideal platform for surveillance and remote sensing. They are able to travel slowly, steadily, and close to the ground, and hover without using any energy to stay aloft. Air and ice monitoring programmes, scientific surveys, and wildlife counts can be done affordably, [and] airships could be very helpful in tracking movements of animals.”18
In short, hybrid airships are the aviation solution we need. These innovative vehicles are not only environmentally friendly, with significantly lower emissions than traditional aircraft, but also cost-effective and highly versatile.
Hybrid airship technology can usher in a new era of Arctic governance, security, and community well-being. It’s time to recognize the potential of these aerial marvels — and to harness them for the preservation of the ecosystem, the support of Indigenous northern communities, and the protection of Canadian sovereignty.
If you’d like to learn more about how hybrid airships could augment Arctic sovereignty strategies and provide a cost-effective cargo transportation solution, feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website: https://at2aero.space/