N.W.T. cabinet committee hears airship pitch from Lockheed Martin

Airships were on the agenda at a Northwest Territories cabinet committee meeting in Hay River on Thursday, as aerospace giant Lockheed Martin pitched their hybrid machines to territorial MLAs.

New helium-filled aircraft can land in rough remote terrain

Concept art of Lockheed Martin's hybrid airship. The airships are expected to be on the market by 2019. (Lockheed Martin)

Airships were on the agenda at a Northwest Territories cabinet committee meeting in Hay River on Thursday. 

The helium-filled aircraft are being floated as a solution to logistical problems in the North, where a huge landmass makes for expensive limitations to development.

It's not the first time the idea of using airships in the North has been explored. In 2013, a House of Commons committee suggested examining airships as a way to reach remote communities.

But this time, there is an actual prototype built, with production expected to begin in 2018. 

With new designs focused on remote operations, proponents are saying the North could be a perfect testing ground for their lofty ambitions.

Straightline Aviation has a contract for the first 12 of Hybrid Air's — a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin — $40 million airships. Straightline's Chief Operating Officer, Mark Dorey, says Canada would be an ideal place to try them out.

"When you're putting a new aircraft into service, you want to work with as many known quantities as you possibly can," he says. "So working with Transport Canada, working with the FAA, is something that we're used to."

Hybrid Air spokesperson Grant Cool suggested that the airships should be thought of more as a mobile part of the highway system, like B.C. Ferries, than like moving vehicles. 

"There are way more ways to use this technology than just making it better for the mines and the oil and gas companies," he said, citing uses like assisting the Coast Guard in the High Arctic, or delivering fuel to remote communities.
The N.W.T.'s Economy and Evironment Committee of Cabinet, plus Hay River South MLA Wally Schumann and Thebacha MLA Louis Sebert, heard a pitch Thursday from Lockheed Martin in Hay River. (Jimmy Thomson/CBC)

There was even discussion of putting the airships to use in the place of barges, since they could be used year-round. 

The aircraft have a cargo capacity similar to that of a transport truck, and a range of over 2,500 km. They are more efficient than planes and helicopters because of their low weight, but they are much slower, moving at around 120 km/h. 

Premier Bob McLeod said he is interested in the new technology and its ability to make it cheaper to move goods around the territory.

"We don't have a lot of infrastructure, and for somebody to bring forward a potential means of transportation where the costs are at least 50 per cent cheaper than existing means, it's very intriguing," he said. 

He says, however, that he doesn't foresee the government investing in the aircraft themselves. 

"I expect that we would hire somebody, if somebody is in the business of resupplying using those airships," he said. "I expect that it wouldn't be that different from chartering an airplane, for example, or hiring a barge."