30 November 2017
“Oh, the humanity!" As the Hindenburg burst into flames, these three words from US broadcaster, Herb Morrison are widely regarded as the epitaph of the airship era. But this was not the first airship accident of that period. There was a long list – albeit no accident had the same media impact.
What really marked the end of airships, however, was arguably the first Pan American Airways flight across the Pacific which provided a faster, more cost efficient transportation option. That didn’t stop countless references in popular culture from a seventies Hollywood movie to Led Zeppelin album covers.
So is that it? Well it appears both Amazon and Walmart both have concepts for an airship-drone delivery system. Essentially, the idea is that an airship acts as a floating distribution centre and drone launch pad. It would move along a delivery route with drones making deliveries to customers along the way. So, is it likely to happen?
Modern technology and materials would result in a contemporary airship being safer and more efficient than a Hindenburg era vessel. In recent times there has even been a conceptual interest in using airships for heavy lifting tasks particularly in remote areas.
Despite this, there are relatively few airships in active use and then principally for tasks like advertising, or aerial video or photography.
The imagination can conjure any number of visions for an airborne distribution centre. These might involve anything from a human operated airship and drones that regularly return to a docking station for refuelling, maintenance and re-loading to fully automated airships and drones that only very rarely (if ever) return to dock.
Coupling drone delivery with a mobile mothership seems like a match made in heaven for airship technology. If it manages to make the leap from imagination to reality, it would breathe life back into airships. However, Amazon and Walmart are likely to face significant technical and business challenges in seeking to get an airship and drone distribution system off the ground.
The initial challenge will be technical. That is, designing and constructing an airship platform with sufficient capacity as the delivery system’s platform that is safe and commercially efficient. While there are design approaches for heavy lift airships, these are relatively untested and it’s unclear at this stage whether they would be sufficient or whether a bespoke solution would be needed. In simple terms, there will be no ‘off the shelf’ solution for Amazon and Walmart and there will need to be a considerable engineering and design effort to arrive at an appropriate engineering solution.
Assuming that the technical issues are surmounted, public policy and regulatory issues will also need to be satisfied. Short of an outright prohibition, an airship distribution system might conceivably operate within existing laws (subject to each jurisdiction’s requirements) – although there would still be (perhaps substantial) regulatory hurdles to jump. It is important to realise that the distribution system would interact with ground-based infrastructure which itself is subject to regulatory processes. Those ground based regulatory processes might conceivably take into account the interaction between the ground-based infrastructure and the airship/drone distribution system.
However, the envisaged distribution system is almost certain to create new regulatory requirements. While civil aviation laws will apply, an airship/drone distribution system may give rise to new regulatory concerns. Unique policy concerns will relate to:
the scale and weight of the airship;
the proximity of the airship to populated areas and infrastructure;
the nature and frequency of routes taken by the airship;
the degree of automation used in the airship and drones; and
the use of a moving airship as a launch/landing pad for drones.
That said, changes to aviation regulatory requirements might be the easiest to manage.
The airship would effectively be a floating warehouse. It could be of considerable size – perhaps as large as the current heavy lift airship concepts or maybe larger. Unless Amazon or Walmart have won public opinion, there is a possibility that people living or working in proximity to such airships may find them unnerving, even if only due to their great size. Then there are issues such as safety, privacy, amenity, visual pollution or shadowing.
Once this is coupled with public knowledge of the weight being carried, judicious use of footage of the Hindenburg disaster and the possibility of a fully automated or AI airship, it is possible to imagine a popular movement rising against such transportation.
It may be inevitable that regulators create new requirements for the floating distribution centres. How restrictive these might be will likely depend on the strength of public or political opinion and the perceived safety risks, giving rise to a further challenge of implementing strategies to engage with the public and regulatory bodies.
Amazon’s and Walmart’s concepts are certainly not ‘castles in the sky’. But don’t expect your next delivery to come via an airship. Or to do so anytime in the immediate future.
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