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Airships by 2019?

Blimps. Dirigibles. Zeppelins. Airships have been around since the 1900s, but they have struggled to find their niche among faster, smaller, and safer aircraft. Early zeppelin pioneers envisioned airships filling the skies as a major form of transportation, and the Empire State Building was even designed to accommodate them but the 1937 Hindenburg disaster quashed that dream. (Seemingly every movie ever envisioning an alternative timeline for the US has zeppelins all over!)

Airships haven't died out completely, though. The Goodyear blimp is one popular example. (Terminology note: A blimp is an airship with a non-rigid envelope, supported only by the pressure of the enclosed lighter-than-air gas. Semi-rigid or rigid envelope frames are called Zeppelins.)

Since 2006, Lockheed Martin has been developing a semi-rigid airship called the LMH-1. The three-lobed airship, filled with helium, is designed as a cargo ship that can deliver up to 47,000 pounds of cargo and 19 passengers to any place in the world without a need for paved roads or a landing runway. Today, such sites are typically accessed by helicopter. But the LMH-1's operating cost is estimated as 7-10 times less than a helicopter. The airship promises access to the two-thirds of the earth's land area inaccessible by paved roads.

Lockheed Martin's target markets for the LMH-1 are the oil, gas, and mining industries. Mine and well sites can be located in remote areas, and companies must either build the costly and environmentally damaging infrastructure to access the sites, or deliver people and materials by helicopter. Airships provide a cheaper alternative. All they need is a 2,400 foot landing area, less than half a mile long. Using an air cushion landing system, the LMH-1 can land on water as well.

In parallel, UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles has developed the Airlander 10, a similar airship that was certified for flight in April 2016. The Airlander 10 can carry up to 22,000 pounds of cargo.

In March 2016, Straightline Aviation placed an order for 12 LMH-1 airships, at a cost of $40 million each. (By comparison, Boeing's heavy-lift Chinook cargo helicopter costs $38.5 million.) Deliveries are expected in 2018. Although Straightline is still working to acquire customers in the oil, gas, and mining industries, the company is targeting Alaskan oilfields formerly accessible only by ice roads. Lockheed Martin expects to produce around 500 airships in the next ten years. Despite all these positive signs, however, bringing a major new type of aircraft into use is no small feat.

Will an oil, gas, or mining company employ hybrid airship transportation by the end of 2018?

To resolve positively, a credible media story or corporate announcement must indicate that a company engaged in oil, gas, or mineral extraction has begun using an LMH-1, Airlander 10, or other hybrid airship for commercial operations on or before December 31, 2018.

(Edit 7/18/16: updated to include other potential airship manufacturers, especially Hybrid Air Vehicles.)

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