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Airships to the Arctic

A few years ago it took imagination to see the future sneaking up on Northern Ontario’s mining sector. Now it is getting hard to ignore.

A few years ago it took imagination to see the future sneaking up on Northern Ontario’s mining sector. Now it is getting hard to ignore.

When the first Airships to the Arctic conference was held in 2002, skepticism about both cargo airships and climate change ran high. Now, burning carbon is an existential threat, ice roads are a dying breed and food supply for remote northern communities is a national concern. The problems that airships can address have become more acute and public interest in the technology is suddenly growing.

Multiple venders are bringing airships to market. Lockheed-Martin’s LMH1, for example, completed FAA certification. Lockheed expects to deliver 24 or more this model beginning this year. One buyer, Straight Line, has already announced plans to operate LMH-1s in Canada’s Arctic.

The place to see what the future may hold for Northern Ontario is the Airships to the Arctic conference in Toronto March 14 to 15.

Airships to the Arctic is organized by University of Manitoba’s Dr. Barry Prentice, an economist and professor at the I.H. Asper School of Business. Prentice was director of the Transport Institute from 1996 to 2005. In 2005, he founded ISOPolar Airships, a not-for-profit organization to encourage the use of cargo airships in Northern Canada.

The speakers list includes a who’s who of the airship industry. The session on American airship developers includes Dr. Bob Boyd of Lockheed-Martin, the company that will have the first commercial model in the air. The session on European developers includes Sébastien Bougon, CEO of France’s Flying Whales company and Gennady E. Verba, president of Russia’s RosAeroSystems.

Speakers will address key challenges for mining and remote communities. Pierre Rivard, the CEO of TUGLIQ Energy, will deliver a keynote talk about the future of hydrogen in transport and mining. TUGLIQ is working to replace diesel generation across the north. Dirk Naumann, president of Torngat Metals, will talk about the advantages of using lighter-than-air craft for mining. Dale George, CTO of Winnipeg’s Buoyant Aircraft International Systems, will focus on using cargo airships in northern regions, and Doug Morrison, president and CEO of the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation in Sudbury, will talk about moving oversized freight for the mining and energy industries.

How will the coming of airships affect the mining supply sector? The answer may depend on how many mines will be developed in Northern Ontario over the next 50 years.

The Ring of Fire has a big enough chromite discovery to justify the building of a road or rail line, but like Timmins, Sudbury and Val d’Or camps, which have innumerable abandoned mines, the Ring of Fire may have hundreds of ancillary deposits that won’t justify the expense of a road.

Small operations can be installed and serviced by airships without the capital expense of a road. The next generation of craft will accommodate payloads upward of 50 tonnes - large enough to bring in all the equipment necessary to develop a mine. Smaller craft are suitable for cycling a workforce, supplying consumables and shipping out concentrate. The same system could remove almost all traces of a mine once production ends. We may be entering an age of surgical mining.

If so, there will be growing demand for mining equipment that can be flown in and moved back out quickly and easily. Mine projects may call for housing and energy systems designed to be airlifted to the next mine once an orebody is depleted. Small, automated mines may become the way to cut costs and environmental impacts.

So who will supply the new fly-in mines? Companies in the Sudbury area mining supply ecosystem have the talent.