Return of the Blimp
I remember seeing some stuff about a German company trying to resurrect the airship (AKA zeppelins) several years ago, I think it was a TV show. The reason I bring this up is because there was an article in the BBC Online magazine last Friday about, you guessed it, airships.
It doesn't really say much, there are a few being operated commercially (using inert helium rather than explosive hyrdrogen), but nobody seems to be doing much with them except using them as mobile billboards.
The stuff I'd seen earlier showed some interesting ideas, mainly in bulk air transport. Everything from delivering goods to otherwise inaccessible destinations, surveying (I think they use an airship for spotting land mines) and even transporting troops. This was something I could see some serious potential in.
I used to work for a company that designed and built petrochemical plants and other large scale chemical installations, these general involve some big pieces of kit, many of which are delivered ready constructed on 'sleds' you just bolt to the floor and connect up to the equipment around it or it may need to be built in a clean environment or run and tested before being dispatched. Plenty of times the equipment was 30+ metres long or weighed several tons, so the only way to transport it over long distances was by boat, sometime requiring special barges, timing of the tides and difficult transfers onto ocean-going ships to be sent to the far east.
Now imaging an airship transporting them. They're still slow, here's some stats from another article about The Spirit of Dubai airship and its upcoming trip to Dubai:
The Spirit of Dubai is the world's largest commercial airship and is managed by Airship Management Services, Inc (AMS). The Spirit of Dubai will operate at around 1,500 to 3,000 feet with a cruising speed of around 30 to 50 mph - the airship can reach speeds of up to 70 mph (or faster, with a tailwind!). While cruising at 30 knots The Spirit of Dubai airship consumes 8 gallons (48 lbs) of fuel per hour. During a week of operations The Spirit of Dubai will consume less fuel than a 767 uses to simply move away from its gate to a runway!
Compared to a ship though, that's pretty quick, plus you can take a more direct route over land, and no need for changing transportation methods as you would with a ship (either having to use road, rail or smaller vessels to get it onto an ocean vessel).
So, the airship comes to you, maybe somewhere near you depending on space, descends, you load the cargo on, it flies to the spot and lands, drops it off, much faster and easier. Added to which is less risk of damage due to water and salt contamination.
Seriously, I think it's a great idea, and you could carry vast loads with ease and lower costs, they use far less fuel than most other forms of transport because they're shifting much less bulk. Likewise, you could cut the costs of air transport for non-perishable items, even take over from sea freight in many areas. Plus we'd all get a chance to see more of them in the sky, they seem to hold some notalgia and romatic feelings for everyone as their continued appearances in literature and popular media show.