Doing Business at COP: Is that a Cargo Zeppelin?


I made an inspiring discovery at COP21 in Paris in my quest for companies that think out of the box on freight and logistics. Meet Ernesto Soria, a Mexican, brought up in Kenya, speaking Dutch, living in France and working for a UK company where he happily munches cucumber sandwiches for tea. I should have been prepared for an unusual answer when I asked him, so what do you do for a living?

Ernesto is a pilot and in charge of business development at Varialift Airships. He showed me a business card with a photo of what looked like a scene from the new Star Wars movie. Is that a zeppelin, I asked? The fact file opened: an aluminum 150-meter long aircraft filled with helium, capable of lifting loads of 50 to 500 tonnes and flying 30,000 feet (or about 10 km) high. And at one-tenth of the costs and one-tenth of the fuel use of a regular airplane, the math (seemed to) add up for business too.

So who is waiting for these? We do what others cannot do, Ernesto continued passionately. These airships can go to inaccessible or remote locations without the need to build roads or reinforce bridges – think of new horticulture fields in Sudan that produce tons of vegetables but it is a nightmare right now to get these to markets quickly. Or flooded or war torn areas where emergency aid is needed fast and landing strips for regular airplanes are a rarity. Their size makes it possible to transport entire windmills, thus significantly reducing costs and time needed to put components together again. Ironically, he added, these airships are also a friend in need for climate adaptation. Canadian trucks drive across frozen lakes with mining products from areas with no permanent road access. Due to warmer winters these ice roads are available for ever shorter periods and disappearing permafrost is leaving roads on land muddy. Whereas air freight was previously impractical and unaffordable for bulky and heavy mining products, airships could provide a way out.

Do these fly yet? After nearly 10 years of R&D in the UK (the founder Alan Handley is an old school engineer with a creative mind), his company is now spending about 1 million pounds to build and test a prototype, but already they have agreed with France to build manufacturing plants on existing air bases that would create 6,000 jobs. There are plans to equip future airships with solar panels – did I know that at 15,000 feet high sun rays are twice as powerful?

I cannot judge whether this is really going to work, but my green freight heart was certainly beating faster after this encounter!

04 December 2015
Sophie Punte, Executive Director



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