Using a Lighter Than Air (LTA) Hybrid Airship to efficiently transport cargo to remote areas seems like an idea that should flourish. It allows access to remote places in the world that have no airports, harbors, or roads leading to them by providing a point-to-point delivery system with vertical take-off and landing, all while providing a greener solution. I see at least three players all trying to enter this market which seems perpetually stuck as coming about in the next 4-5 years and all seem to have benefited from the U.S. Army's Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) project that was canceled in January 2013.
- Hybrid Air Vehicles in the U.K. has partnered with Northrop Grumman owns a prototype that came out of the LEMV project and plans to build a 50-ton capacity airship in about five years.
- Aeroscraft in the U.S. has a prototype and plans to build an airship that carries a 66-ton load as shown on the History channel.
- Lockheed Martin has a P-791 / SkyTug prototype derived from the LEMV program and hopes to build a SkyFreighter to lift a 70-ton cargo.
It appears none of these companies has any current orders and are all looking for funding to build their proposed cargo airships. Apparently an investment of on the order of 50 to 250 million USD would allow one of these to be built for commercial use. While this is a lot of money, it is small compared to other aviation investments. For example, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner required 32 billion USD as of 2011.
Today, all such airships use noble gas helium instead of the very flammable hydrogen used in the Hindenburg accident, so the historical fear of using such ships should not apply to the new technologies. These proposed ships are planned to travel at between 70 and 115 MPH, so while not as fast as airplanes, they do compete with trucking and shipping speeds.
So the question is, given the relatively small cost to develop one of these cargo lift systems, why hasn't a company like Boeing with deep pockets wanted to invest in such systems and these companies continue to search for funding? Is there some kind of flaw in the proposal that such a new cargo shipping approach would save money? Is it that the market is too small to interest big companies? The hangar space required to store and maintain these ships is huge and little such infrastructure currently exists, perhaps that is their downfall? Alternatively, maybe their maintenance requirements are their Achilles heel?