The flight of the whale – is the airship making a comeback in the logistics industry?

When Sébastien Bougon looks up at the sky while going for a walk, he sees zeppelins floating above him. Monsieur Bougon doesn’t live in 1919, no. He lives in 2019. He is real, but the zeppelins aren’t yet. But if he has his way, his vision will soon become reality:

With the LCA60T, the French company Flying Whales will pick up where CargoLifter left off. The heavy-lift airship concept is currently being prepared for the market in France and China and is expected to lift off in 2021. The goal of the project: transport heavy goods to regions with underdeveloped terrain.

The LCA60T – wind turbines and entire houses transported by air

Bougon’s original idea with the LCA60T was to transport wood from regions with rough terrain. However, the LCA60T is also being designed to transport electricity pylons, wind turbines, and even entire houses.

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DB Schenker handled the transportation of a weight for industrial machinery. Getting a 170 metric tonne weight to the North Sea by train, truck, and barge.

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How it works: The cargo is stowed in a cargo hold that is 75 meters long, eight meters high, and eight meters wide or suspended by crane. The airship doesn’t even need to land to be loaded. The cargo can be loaded and unloaded via a crane system.

Flying Whales’ airship concept is 150 meters long and has a load capacity of 60 tons. Like the zeppelins of the past, it has a rigid inner frame. Lift is generated using helium. Helium is a safe gas that, unlike the hydrogen of the infamous Hindenburg, does not pose an explosion hazard.

With speeds of up to 100 km/h, much lower energy requirements, and 1/20th of the operating costs of comparable cargo helicopters, the French airship is a genuine alternative. The graphene-based ultracapacitors (electrochemical energy storage) can be charged and discharged faster than normal batteries.

Theoretically, the LCA60T has a range of 1,000 kilometers. In practice, the radius of action is expected to be 100 kilometers.

A company with lift

The company, with its 50 employees, has the wind at its back: The state-owned French development bank BPI France supports Flying Whales with 25 million euros. Experts see it as pioneering for the French economy.

“Will the zeppelin enable the French company Flying Whales to make a comeback in #airfreight?“

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Shareholders include the French forest authority ONF, the densely forested region Nouvelle Aquitaine, as well as the Chinese aerospace and defense conglomerate Avic and the Moroccan Marita Group. The latter is particularly interested in possible aid transports. The project costs are expected to reach 200 million euros by 2022.

CargoLifter and Co.: Castles in the air of previous times

A cargo airship was already being developed in Germany at the turn of the millennium: With a length of 260 meters and a payload carrying-capacity of 160 metric tons, the CargoLifter CL 160 was even more impressive than the LCA60T is now.

The promise of faster and cheaper overland transport aroused the interest of the economy. Around 70,000 shareholders invested about 300 million euros in the project. Schenker had also been involved since 1997.

A few years later, CargoLifter announced insolvency and even a request for the support from the government went unheard. In the end, the company had to file for insolvency in 2002.

The British company Hybrid Airship recently developed the Airlander, a 92-meter-long hybrid vehicle that unites the features of an airship and an airplane. After an accident in 2017, however, its future is uncertain.

The US-based company Lockheed Martin has also been working on an airship for more than ten years. The planned hybrid, not dissimilar from Airlander, has not reached the necessary maturity for the market so far.

Maiden flight 2021

Flying Whales wants to manufacture its airships in France, China, and Morocco. The test phase is scheduled to begin in 2020 and the maiden flight is set to take place in 2021. The company plans an initial public offering in 2021 as well.

Large-scale production is scheduled to start in 2022. According to the company’s CEO, Sébastien Bougon, estimates that 150 machines will be built in the first ten years. After this, ten to twenty would be produced each year.

So far, the signs are good for Flying Whales. However, the question ultimately still remains as to whether the ambitious whale of a promise will be met or—like its predecessors—fail to stay afloat.