Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Airships from another world in Alaska?

Here's an item I originally filed under energy in Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Curiosity's first destination edition) on Daily Kos.

University of Alaska, Fairbanks: Workshop to examine cargo airship feasibility in Alaska
James Harper
907-451-2990
8/17/12
The University of Alaska Fairbanks and NASA will gather roughly 100 business executives, researchers and government officials in Anchorage next week for the second annual Cargo Airships for Northern Operations Workshop.

The workshop, which will run Aug. 22-24 at UAA, will examine how airships could transform Alaska’s commercial transportation system.

“Airship technologies have the potential to move fuel, construction equipment, and supplies to villages and projects in rural Alaska when ice roads, river ships and barges can’t do the job,” said. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, the event’s keynote speaker. “Airships could have a significant effect on economics and life in the bush and the ultimate feasibility of energy and natural resource projects around the state.”
This news item struck a bit of a nerve with me, as airships are an way to show viewers and readers that they are not in the modern world, at least this modern world. TVTropes even has an entry for it, Zeppelins from Another World. Here's what the Tropers have to say about airships, both in reality and in fiction.
"A startling number of alternative histories wind up strengthening the marginal technology of airships and zeppelins, for example. This is a matter of flavor rather than logic, but this is a game book, after all."
— GURPS Infinite Worlds
If your characters have entered a parallel universe that's just a few steps removed from our own, the fastest way to establish it is by sticking a whopping great Zeppelin airship in the sky.

In our world Zeppelins and other airships lost popularity in the late 1930s in part due to a series of catastrophic crashes (culminating in the the fiery Hindenburg disaster) but mostly because advances in other aircraft technologies had rendered them obsolete. More recently, airships have made a bit of a comeback for niches such as advertising, pleasure cruising, humanitarian aid, cargo hauling [emphasis mine, P-S], law enforcement, military surveillance, photography, and scientific research where airships' strengths in vertical flight, massive payloads, cheap cost, fuel efficiency, loiter time and relative silence outweigh their obvious speed and bulk disadvantages.

Zeppelins aren't just the fastest way to indicate that you've found yourself in an Alternate Universe setting, they're quite often a striking symbol of dystopia. Like Spy Satellites, Zeppelins can be used to survey the populace, only hundreds of times cheaper and more effectively, with next to unlimited endurance. They are also much more visible than a satellite, obviously, often leading to their use as a Propaganda Machine, acting like Big Brother's evil Goodyear Blimp.

The name of Zeppelin strictly refers only to airships with a rigid external frame, a propulsion and steering mechanism, and no anxiety that users will be put off by the name. Alternate universe plane-spotters, take note.

So by filling up Earth 2 with bulbous aircraft rather than hovercars or spaceships, you are suggesting a world that is of a similar time period to our own, but just happened to follow a different technological route. It also helps that they have lots of Diesel Punk and Steam Punk cred and are sufficiently olde-worlde to be used in fantasy stories too. They are also cool.
Note that I emphasized the item about cargo hauling. TVTropes links to an article in The Register, Airship 'Sky Tugs' ordered from Lockheed for Canadian oilfields, about this very application.
P-791 military hover suck-blimp gets civil application
By Lewis Page
Posted in Science, 28th March 2011 13:56 GMT

The famous P-791 prototype airship - built last decade for a military transport programme which eventually came to nothing - is to give birth to new, mighty commercial versions of itself with Canadian financial backing.
...
Alberta-based private company Aviation Capital Enterprises says it has inked a deal with US aerospace colossus Lockheed, builder of the P-791, to "design, develop, build, flight test and Federal Aviation Administration certify a family of hybrid aircraft". The first ship, dubbed "SkyTug" and able to lift 20 tons, is to be delivered in 2012. Further versions are to scale up to "several hundred tons", apparently.
I don't think it's a coincidence that this airship is being ordered for cargo operations in the far north. For all I know, this may be where the Alaskans got the idea.

The Register has more about the airship's capabilities.
According to Aviation Capital, the fully vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) capable SkyTug will provide "greater payload and range at a fraction of the cost of a helicopter". The larger ships that will follow apparently won't be fully VTOL - they'll require something of a run-up on the ground to generate dynamic lift and get airborne, rather as an aeroplane does.

However the big ships aren't expected to need massive runways: they'll be able to land and take off from "unimproved surfaces and water". This will be achieved by the cunning air-cushion undercarriage which is such a novel feature of the P-791: rather than wheels or skids, the airships will move about on the ground supported on air blown down through big skirt assemblies, just like a hovercraft.
Here's what one looks like in action.


Eye spy a science fiction trope come to life, and being used to assist in energy extraction.

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