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Airships delayed, but not dead: Discovery Air

Yellowknife's Discovery Air continues to see a buoyant future for next-generation airships, even if a deal between them and a British manufacturer recently deflated.

Yellowknife’s Discovery Air continues to see a buoyant future for next-generation airships, even if a deal between them and a British manufacturer recently deflated.

The deal died simply because of timing, according to Garry Venman, vice-president of government services with Discovery.

“Although this technology is really interesting and although it will eventually be commercialized ... We’re looking at one to three years and this thing’s gonna take longer than that,” he said.

“They’ll have to finalize the design, build the technology, demonstrate it, get through the certification process, get customers comfortable with the ability of the machine, etcetera, etcetera. That’s just going to take longer than we expect. We’re focusing our resources - both our people’s time and energy and our financial resources - on things that are going to return our investment in a shorter time.”

Hybrid Air Vehicles’ first airship recently took flight a military base in New Jersey. The vehicle was designed, built and flown in only 24 months. The company touts the maiden flight as another step toward America’s goal of having unmanned surveillance fleets over war zones like Afghanistan.

The Canadian deal, signed about a year ago between Discovery Air and Hybrid Air Vehicles, would have given the Canadian company first dibs on as many as the first 45 ships, which the Brits are calling the Air Lander.

Unlike the 300-foot (91.4-metre) long, blimp-like ship that took off over Jersey, the Air Lander would carry heavy equipment in, and massive loads of ore out, of remote, northern mines with little or no effect to the environment.

Discovery Air knows there is the possibility that someone else could jump in and get the first rights to a possibly lucrative industry, but that’s a risk the company is willing to take, said Venman.

Other producers are certainly perking their ears, he added, suspecting that it won’t be long before bigger names like Boeing and Lockheed start figuring this technology out.

The people that should be paying the most attention are in the Canadian government, he said.

“If Canada is going to enable the kind of economic development they’re talking about in the northern regions of Canada, you need some way of extracting the resources,” said Venman. “We just don’t see that happening with traditional infrastructure.”

Cutting out things like roads and railroads not only cuts down on environmental destruction, it also cuts out big costs, he added.

According to Hybrid Air Vehicles, the deal with Discovery Air was simply too small.

“It’s a big thing and beyond the scope of one operator, like Discovery Air,” said Hardy Giesler over the phone from Britain last Thursday.

Giesler had spent much of the time during the London Olympics at the Canada House talking to high-up officials about the technology, he said.

The demand for the potential vehicles is quite big, he added.

In the Yukon, the idea was brought up as a possible way to bridge a compromise between the miners that want to tear up the Peel Watershed region for natural gas, oil, coal, iron and uranium, and the First Nations and conservationists that fear a future of roads crisscrossing the nearly pristine, Scotland-sized area.

Considering how promising the global commercialization of this technology could be, Hybrid Air Vehicles foresees an entire industry with manufacturing and assembly plants scattered all across the world, said Giesler.

It would be an obvious choice to have come of those plants somewhere in the Canadian North, he said. But Venman isn’t so sure.

“You would need access to a labour pool and resources that just don’t exist in Canada’s North,” he said.

Further south, in cities like Edmonton or Winnipeg, or even somewhere in Ontario or Quebec would be a better fit, he added.

But the deal Discovery Air had with the British company included a centre in the Northwest Territories for maintenance and training, said Venman.

It would be the first real centre for aerospace innovation in the North, which would be exciting but also very difficult, he added.

“But we’re not completely washing our hands of this,” he said. “It’s just we’re not investing in it, or purchasing these machines until the technology’s a little bit more developed. But ultimately we think it will be commercialized. It will come.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at