The Potential for Cargo Airships in the OSOM Market

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Imagine having the ability to roll on at port and roll off at site mining equipment such as a Cat 773F  and arrive five to ten times faster, and to do it at a comparable rate to road transportation. Cargo airships have the potential to revolutionise the transportation of oversize overmass (OSOM) freight items for the mining, oil and gas and many other industries by 2020.

Although there are currently no cargo airships in operation, modern designs such as the Lockheed Martin LMH-1 & LMH-90 and the Aeros Corporation Aeroscraft ML866 & ML868 provide the potential for this type of capability within a few short years, with both aiming to have an operating cargo airship by 2018. Modern cargo airships incorporate the latest aeronautical and aerospace technology such as avionics, weather radar, high tech materials (e.g. carbon fibre and light weight materials for the airship skin)  which combined create a mode of freight transportation with significant comparative advantages over both road and traditional air transportation.

They have the ability to vertically takeoff and land like a helicopter; to operate over long distances; and to carry vast cargo loads in terms of weight, volume and dimensions. Yet, depending upon the size and model of cargo airship, their cost per freight tonne kilometer (FTK) may be at a comparable cost to general road freight and significantly cheaper than current air freight. Their greatest initial potential is for the transportation of freight types that are comparatively expensive to transport, such as the OSOM market.

Using Queensland as an example, OSOM road movements are classed as those vehicles and/or freight that exceeds 3.5 metres wide by 4.6 metres high. Movements from port to site are currently undertaken utilising high torque prime movers with differing trailer combinations, with significant planning and coordination being required well in advance of the movement. As a general rule, as the dimensions and weight of an OSOM movement increase, the complexity and cost of the movement also increases, including the requirement for escort services, permits, and route surveying  – all of which come at significant additional expense.  As well as the nature of the item being transported, the level of difficulty in the route taken, time of year, weather conditions and many other variables can make the level of planning and coordination required for these movements highly resource intensive. To date there hasn’t been a practical alternative to get an OSOM item to site, as rail and traditional air (both fixed wing aircraft and rotary wing) have  limitations which make their employment unfeasible.

Are Cargo Airships the Answer?

Cargo airships have the potential to transport most OSOM items without disassembly from port to site at a comparable or reduced cost to that currently charged for road transportation.  Cargo airships could carry a significant percentage of OSOM movements that are transported by road today.

The Queensland Transport and Logistics Council (QTLC) Report “Supply Chain Perspective  Over-Size Over Mass (OSOM) “gives us an insight into the percentage of Queensland OSOM movements that the LMH-1,LMH-90 and ML866, ML868 could transport. In 2012/13 in Queensland there were 70,976 OSOM movements which the report has broken down into the standard width and height categories.

OSOM Movements in Queensland 2012/2013 by Width and Height

Using the above categories to assess the ability of the 4 cargo airships’ (LMH-1, LMH-90, ML866, & ML868) ability to carry OSOM items by width and height in their internal cargo bays, the following approximate percentages are calculated;

 

Internal Cargo Bay Dimensions Carrying Capacity % of movements by Width % of movements by Height
LMH-1 3m W x 3m H x 20m L 21 tonnes & 19 passengers 0%

Sling load only

0%

Sling load only

LMH-90 6m W x    6 m  H x 40m L 90 tonnes 60% 95%
ML866 13m W x 10m H x 73m L 60 tonnes 100% 100%
ML8686 20m W x  15m H x 126m L 226 tonnes 100% 100%

(Note even though the LHM-1 can’t carry OSOM items internally, it has the ability to sling load them) 

At this point in time Lockheed Martin and Aeros Corporation are the leaders in the race to produce a cargo airship with both claiming they will have an operational cargo airship in service by 2018 (LMH-1 for Lockheed Martin and ML866 for Aeros Corporation).

Lockheed Martin has recently signed its first customer for the LMH-1 with Straightline Aviation in the UK signing a letter of intent to purchase 12 of the LMH-1, with deliveries from 2018-2021.  Even though the LMH-1 is not ideal for the transportation of OSOM freight due to its small internal cargo bay and reduced carrying capacity, it is likely that it will still be used for this purpose due its ability to operate in remote locations around the world.

Depending upon how the sale of the LMH-1 progresses, and the demand for larger models, we could see the larger LMH-90- which is in the design phase ‘floating’ off the production line within a few years of the LMH-1 (around 2020).

Aeros Corporation is planning to have its first 60 tonne ML866 off the production line in 2018 with the larger 226 tonne ML868 to follow within a few years. Aeros Corporation has received considerable support for its cargo airships to date with MOUs being signed with several companies over the last few years, including AMUR Minerals Corporation, Bertling Logistics, Air Charter Service, Pacific Airlift, Cargolux, and Icelandair Cargo.

The future of OSOM transportation.

Over the next 15 years with the continuing growth in demand for freight transportation it is likely that road infrastructure upgrades will not be able to keep pace. Therefore we are likely to see from mid next decade a decrease in road freight providers’ ability to maintain current service levels.  We can’t assume that the next 15 years will be business as usual for the carriage of OSOM items.

With the increasing pressure on road infrastructure, will there be pressure on governments not to grant OSOM permits?

Will they place more severe restrictions on OSOM movements in the future?

In an environment with increasing pressure on freight delivery, consider the advantages of a mode that can operate anywhere, with the ability to vertically takeoff and land, hover in place, and requires no ground handling equipment. Cargo airships have the capability to deliver the next innovation in freight transportation services, especially in a country such as Australia with vast distances, limited terrain elevation and a looming infrastructure deficit. Could cargo airships be the future of OSOM freight transportation in Australia?