To save the economy, the Russian government entertains an airy idea
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
A fleet of high-tech aerostats sail across Russia’s remote Arctic streteches, bringing resources from the north to the busy railheads farther south. An economic boom saves the economy, and because American business wants a piece of the action, the United States lifts sanctions on Russia.
The European Union and China get involved, too. Same goes for disloyal Russian millionaires and billionaires stashing their savings in London and New York real estate instead of investing in the motherland.
Thanks in part to blimps.
This is the vision behind a recent proposal from the high-profile economist Alexander Nekipelov of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Kremlin is interested enough that Pres. Vladimir Putin’s Security Council ordered a cabinet minister to examine the idea.
It’s an old concept from the early 20th century’s zeppelin craze being reconsidered for Russia’s 21st century geopolitical ambitions.
And it might not be totally crazy.
Nekipelov’s proposal calls for billions of dollars in investment into the Arctic, where Russia has numerous economic and military goals.
All together, he wants to expand railroads as the basis for a revived “transport and logistical infrastructure … and even dirigibles with a large carrying capacity and a long flight range,” Kommersant newspaper reported.
Now, a fleet of helium-filled blimps soaring across the Arctic makes for a cool theory — even better if they usher in global harmony at the same time. Nekipelov’s proposal specifically calls for the construction of Atlant airships, a high-tech design by the Moscow-based firm Augur RosAeroSystems.
“So far, of all the components of the project, only transport dirigibles of the Atlant (‘aerostatic flying transport vehicle of a new type’) have been described in detail,” the newspaper added.
The proposition calls for $157 million to get a factory going within two-and-a-half years, allowing a construction rate of “two to 10 dirigibles per year.”
But if the airships ever get built and off the ground, the effect will be relatively modest. More broadly, airships have come and gone, and most have underperformed or failed to make it past the drawing board.
Lester Grau, an analyst writing in the U.S. Army publication O.E. Watch, described the idea as “fairly dramatic” and “long on promise.”
Augur RosAeroSystems has previously sold several smaller Au-12 airships for an Interior Ministry plan to monitor highways in Moscow. But an official in 2013 said the airships had “lain useless,” the Lenta newspaper reported.
Likewise, military airships in the United States have fared poorly. DARPA’s Walrus, which envisioned a massive vehicle carrying 500 tons to around 12,000 miles, never left the research stage.
The U.S. Air Force’s Blue Devil 2 was 95 percent complete when the flying branch cancelled it. The airship’s defenders grumbled that the Air Force, preferring fighters and bombers, added complexity and costs during the engineering phase to justify killing the program.
The LEM-V airship for the U.S. Army was also terminated, helped in no small part by overselling, mismanagement and bureaucratic infighting.
The Army’s JLENS missile-detecting aerostat — not an airship — survived a little longer. In October 2015, one broke its tether and went rogue across the Pennsylvania countryside before state troopers shot it out of the sky.
The Pentagon cut JLENS’ budget by 95 percent this year, effectively killing it.
“Why have so many airships failed? Two themes recur,” aviation journalist Bill Sweetman wrote for Air & Space magazine last year. “One is grandiosity: Designers aim for 500 tons straight out of the box; why not try to build an airship with a C-130’s 20-ton payload instead?”
Those are mistakes Augur RosAeroSystems is trying to avoid with Atlant.
The company claims the 246-foot-long Atlant 30 could haul a conservative 16 tons, much smaller than the monster airships of the past. If built, it could stay in the air for three days without needing to refuel, and travel 2,500 miles at a leisurely cruising speed of 86 miles per hour.
Another larger airship concept called Atlant 100 could theoretically carry 60 tons. But neither design is as inflated as a blue-sky Walrus.
In fact, Atlant 30 is similar to a plump Lockheed Martin design called the LMH1, which can carry 20 tons. In March, the Fort Worth-based company secured a $480 million deal with Straightline Aviation, headed by an ex-Virgin Airship CEO, to supply 12 LMH1s between 2018 and 2021.
Straightline wants to do to Canada what Nekipelov has in mind for the Arctic — send the lumbering airships into areas too remote to reach by other means (at least profitably).
“Some ice roads can cost $20 million a year to construct,” Lockheed Martin’s Rob Binns told CNBC. “You don’t have to build ice roads … and wait for the environmentalists to give you permission.”
We won’t know for several years how well Lockheed’s LMH1 will pan out. Igor Pasternak, a Russian-born American blimp-maker, is working on a competing airship called Dragon Dream, which controls buoyancy in a similar manner to Atlant.
The British company Hybrid Air Vehicles bought the U.S. Army’s LEM-V and is working on converting it into a commercial carrier known as the Airlander 10. But that airship crashed — the company described it as a “heavy landing” — in Cardington, England on Aug. 24.
Which is to illustrate that airships are still largely experimental aircraft. With enough money, time and experience refining and operating them, they could usher in an economic boom to some remote regions.
But there’s a long way to go from A to B.
And the Russian Atlant is a concept, not a built airship.
O.E. Watch’s Grau pointed out that if Russia wants to move goods south from the Arctic, it’s probably more efficient to do so by river … which it does already. “Although some parts of the rivers require attention to improve the load-carrying capacity, they are most likely cheaper than dirigibles,” Grau wrote.
However, helicopters are common in areas inaccessible by waterways. Here, airships are likely more cost effective. But Russia could always build more railways.
So let that be a lesson for the aspiring airship designer — and the Kremlin. You might have a workable idea in theory, but you’ll need a superior product if you want to break into an aggressive marketplace.