Could Superblimp Revival Be A Game Changer For African Mining?

Could Superblimp Revival Be A Game Changer For African Mining?

Mining industry stakeholders say the sector must innovate and adapt to new circumstances. More than 7,000 delegates from 100 countries in six continents traveled recently to Cape Town for the biggest mining gathering on the planet in arguably one of the toughest years in African mining history.

The continent is facing a downturn in commodities prices, along with strikes, uncertainty over mining regulations, and power cuts. Despite the setbacks, mining is still the top African employer, providing 400,000 jobs, according to CNBCAfrica.

Enter the world’s largest aircraft — superblimps — some of them longer than jumbo jets but much lighter, with hybrid technology that runs on non-polluting helium.

They’re capable of hauling tons of cargo and can stay afloat for three weeks at a time without a human crew.  They do all this silently and their makers say gunfire won’t bring them down — at least not right away.

At the recent African Mining Indaba in Cape Town, salespeople from U.S.-based Lockheed Martin and its Hybrid Enterprises Airship reseller pitched the Airlander 10 blimp as a vital asset for mining companies across Africa, according to a report by Fox61.

The Airlander 10 and the France’s Stratobus from Thales are just two of the new designs preparing to join the blimp revival.

Airlander 10 is a prototype airship built by U.K.-based Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV). It’s  302-feet long (60 feet longer than a jumbo jet) and can carry 10 metric tons of cargo. The company HAV has been trying to stimulate interest in the Airlander development for years, according to TheVerge. This month it unveiled the finished aircraft looking for buyers.

Promoters in Cape Town emphasized the blimp’s ability to access remote but lucrative mineral sources using the slogan, “No roads, No problem,” Fox61 reported.

An estimated 90-percent-plus of existing mineral resources in Africa are yet to be discovered, according to Robert S. Stewart, head of Canadian-African mining firm Interop AG.

Stewart helped develop cargo airships for mining, petroleum and major infrastructure projects worldwide, according to his LinkedIn page.

They’re hybrid because they combine aspects of fixed wing aircraft, helicopters, and super-light technology, according to Fox61. They may look like a blimp, but they do more.

Stewart says he works with the world’s largest mining companies developing new remote mining projects and connecting contractors, service providers and material supply chains to what he describes as a “revolutionary new air logistics service that leapfrogs over conventional project construction methods.”

So what exactly is an airship? Airships, dirigibles, Zeppelins, and blimps are not necessarily synonymous, according to Airships.net.

“Airship” and “dirigible” are powered, steerable aircraft inflated with a gas that is lighter than air, as opposed to free floating like a balloon.

Rigid airships (like the Hindenburg), semi-rigid airships (like the Zeppelin NT), and blimps (like the Goodyear blimp) are all dirigibles.

A blimp (technically a “pressure airship”) is a powered, steerable, lighter-than-air vehicle whose shape is maintained by the pressure of the gases inside. A blimp has no rigid internal structure; if a blimp deflates, it loses its shape.

Stewart researched the Airlander 10’s potential impact on projects across Africa, including the largest — Rio Tinto’s planned $20 billion iron ore plant in Simandou, Guinea, Fox reported.

Key mining sites are inaccessible, he said, such as Sundance’s Mbalam-Nabeba project, which straddles the Republic of Congo and Cameroon, and required a 510-kilometer rail line to be built.

The airship could offer relief and opportunity for the industry, Fox61 reported. The new design could bypass many of the most expensive and time-consuming aspects of mining.

“The airship could save the project $7 billion by staging it in a completely different way,” he said, according to Fox61. “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. With an airship you can fly straight in, without even an airport, just an area the size of two or three football fields.”

Vast gold and diamond deposits still await discovery in remote, hidden, African locations, Stewart said.

The airship could be a game changer that allows commodities to be fast-tracked to market, said mining consultant Stan Sudol, publisher of industry website republicofmining.com, according to Fox61.

“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,” Sudol said.

The goal is for Hybrid Air Vehicles’ ships to be in operation by 2018. They’re undergoing certification with the U.S. Federal Aviation Association. Each one is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars, Fox61 reported.