Can 'superblimp' unlock hidden riches of Africa?
Best known for floating aimlessly above sports stadiums, and for their slightly comic, bloated shape, blimps are an unlikely subject for a 21st century revival.
But after 20 years of development, Lockheed Martin and Hybrid Enterprises are poised to unleash a revolutionary new design that could unlock resources worth billions of dollars across the African continent.
The Hybrid Airship is a helium-powered craft that can cover thousands of kilometers in a single journey, with a top speed of 60 knots. The craft can take off and land without a runway, and the cavernous interior can carry loads of 20 tons.
At the recent African Mining Indaba event in Cape Town, the Airship was presented as a vital asset for mining companies across the continent. Using the tag "No roads, No problem," promoters emphasized its ability to access remote but lucrative mineral sources.
"It will land on water, sand, a field, even ice," said a Hybrid Enterprises spokesperson.
1/13 – Mombasa rail station
Industry in need of new ideas
Given the downturn in commodities prices across the continent, and the inaccessibility of key sites -- Sundance's Mbalam-Nabeba project straddles the border of Cameroon and the Republic of Congo and required the building of a 510-kilometer rail line - the Airship could offer relief and opportunity to the beleaguered industry.
Robert S. Stewart, head of mining firm Interop AG, has researched the ship's potential impact on projects across the continent, including the largest -- Rio Tinto's putative $20 billion iron ore plant in Simandou, Guinea.
"The airship could save the project $7 billion by staging it in a completely different way," he says.
Stewart believes the new design could bypass many of the most expensive and time-consuming aspects of mining.
"When you build a project in a remote area, you always have to start with a road, a railway line, and a power line before you build the smelter," says Stewart. "With an airship you can fly straight in, without even an airport, just an area the size of two or three football fields."
The vast majority of "low-hanging fruit" have been extracted already, according to Stewart, who estimates that over 90% of existing mineral resources in Africa - including vast gold and diamond deposits - are in "hidden, remote locations."
He believes the industry must innovate and adapt to these new circumstances.
The shape of the future
Mining consultant Stan Sudol, publisher of respected industry website republicofmining.com, agrees the ship could be a game changer, that will allow commodities to be fast-tracked to market.
"They can be used to set up initial mine site development for less cost in a faster time-frame as no local airstrip is necessary to start cargo delivery," says Sudol.
Hybrid Enterprises hope the ships -- which are currently undergoing FAA certification -- will be in operation by 2018. The cost of each unit is expected to run to tens of millions of dollars, although the price has not yet been disclosed.