The company selling Lockheed Martin's hybrid airships has its first potential customer in Canada.

Quest Rare Minerals has signed a memorandum of understanding to have Straightline Aviation operate a fleet of seven helium-filled airships at its proposed Strange Lake mine, along the Quebec-Labrador border.

Each airship could carry more than 20 metric tonnes of ore, 19 passengers and cargo.

The proposed mine would dig for rare earth minerals — used for a variety of things like electronics, magnets and cancer drugs — and the airships should be ready by 2019.

Quest's initial plan was to build a 168-kilometre road from the mine site to Anaktalak Bay off the Atlantic coast, but it would have cut across a caribou migration route.

Quest says flying airships some 200 kilometres from the mine to Schefferville, Que., — where a railway runs to a port along the St. Lawrence River — will save money in the long run, despite the extra distance.

Lower costs

Quest Rare Minerals's president Dirk Naumann said building a road would cost about $350 million. Construction would start two or three years before the mine begins producing ore, which means the company would have to finance the road and pay interest. Then there's the cost of road maintenance and winter servicing.

Naumann says all that "goes well beyond" the $85 million a year it would cost to operate the airships.

"We only pay for the airship when we need it," Naumann said.

He added he was skeptical of the idea at first, but was convinced after running the numbers.

To further cut costs, Quest is looking toward Lockheed Martin's next generation of airships, which Naumann said should be ready by 2025.

"We know Lockheed Martin has an airship on the drawing board that can carry 90 to 100 tonnes, approximately five times the payload [of the current airships]. Then the cost for the airships will drop dramatically by 50 or 60 per cent."

Naumann says for Quest's small mine — which would be 10 per cent the size of other mines in Northern Quebec — the airship's cargo capacity fits the mine's needs.

No need for roads

Whether airship technology will be applicable to larger mines around Northern Canada remains to be seen, but the company selling the airships, Hybrid Enterprises, says the deal with Quest shows there's a new way of thinking about how to build a mine.

"Typically in the past in Canada, if you could possibly build a road, you built a road," said Grant Cool, Hybrid Enterprises' chief operating officer. 

"If you couldn't build an all-season road, you built a winter road or an ice road. And if it was too far for that, you built a runway, or built a mine near a body of water. That often limited where you could build mines."

He says with airships, "you can build a mine essentially anywhere... with less impact on the environment."

Cool pitched the idea at this year's Nunavut Mining Symposium, and to a Northwest Territories cabinet committee in September. He said there's nothing yet in the works in Nunavut, but said the company is in talks with a few companies in the Northwest Territories.