Quebec puts its money on next generation of airships to help serve the North

Province’s $30M investment in Flying Whales has attracted ire from opposition

The Province of Quebec now has a stake in Flying Whales, a company working on a hybrid airship, seen in this rendering, that they tout as a possible solution to transportation woes for remote sites. (Image from Flying Whales website)

By Elaine Anselmi

The next generation of airships could be servicing Nunavik’s communities and mines in coming years, if an investment by the Government of Quebec pays off.

But Quebec Premier François Legault has recently been forced to defend his government’s decision to buy a $30-million stake in the French airship manufacturer Flying Whales, following criticism from opposition legislators.

Last June, the provincial government signed an agreement in principle with Flying Whales while at the Paris-Le Bourget International Aeronautics and Space Exhibition.

Speaking in French, Pierre Fitzgibbon, Quebec’s minister of the economy and innovation, said the technology would help deliver supplies to remote mine northern mine sites, and would “promote economic development and the development of certain regions, notably Nord-du-Quebec,” when he announced the deal on Nov. 13.

On Feb. 4, Legault defended the plan, as opposition legislators in the Quebec assembly demanded access to the study that supported the investment in Flying Whales.

It’s not the first time that plans for these lightweight, low-emission vehicles have been floated as a new way to transport goods to remote, roadless sites in northern Canada.

The previous Liberal government turned a previous—less developed, according to the premier—plan down.

Legault argued Quebec’s aeronautical industry, which has 42,000 employees, is based on innovation, and that requires taking risks.

And this technology does carry its share of uncertainty, as other Canadian ventures have shown.

Among them, in 2011, Hybrid Air Vehicles in the United Kingdom was supposed to deliver its first airship to the Canadian company Discovery Air Innovations. Discovery stepped away from the deal the following year.

Lockheed Martin is also in the game: in 2016, the company met with representatives from the Government of the Northwest Territories to talk about the possibility of airships bringing goods into far-flung places.

Quest Rare Minerals Ltd., owner of the Strange Lake rare-earths mine on the Nunavik and Labrador border, signed an agreement with Straightline Aviation to transport its goods by airship. They would use Lockheed’s LMH-1 hybrid airship, which was expected to be delivered in 2019.

According to the Lockheed Martin’s website, they are “ready to begin construction of the first commercial model.”

But at this point there are no examples of airships operating in the North.

The Province of Quebec paid 20 million euros—or about $30 million—for its stake in Flying Whales.

The majority of this, 15 million euros, is invested in the company at large and 5 million euros in the development of a Quebec-based subsidiary of Flying Whale, Fitzgibbon explained.

The idea is that a portion of the company’s aeronautical program would be hosted in Quebec. Airships would be manufactured and operated out of this subsidiary, serving customers across North, Central and South America.

For the Quebec subsidiary, the provincial government has a 51 per cent stake, and in Flying Whales, 49 per cent, Fitzgibbon said.

In the same announcement, Sébastien Bougon, managing director of Flying Whales, said that modern airships shouldn’t be confused with their predecessors, which quickly lost popularity following the 1937 Hindenburg disaster.

“When we talk about airships, unfortunately, it’s the same word that you all have in mind and which refers to technology of the last century,” Bougon said.

He likened it to assuming the current design of streetcars being akin to their old wooden ancestors. He said the airships of today have nothing to do with the designs that came before.

The Flying Whales airship is lifted by helium, rather than hydrogen, which was used in the Hindenburg, while thrust is provided by a hybrid-electric engine, according to the company’s plans.

The Flying Whales hybrid airship, rendered here, has caught the attention of the Quebec government. The province has invested in the French company to bring a subsidiary operation to Quebec. (Screenshot from the Flying Whales website)

The Flying Whales airship design is 150 metres long and can carry up to 60 tons, or 55,000 kilograms.

Bougon has discussed the possibility of transporting houses to northern communities where lack of housing is a critical issue.

But the natural resource sector appears to be the target market for the use of these airships.

“There were market studies done in 2018,” said Fitzgibbon. Through the Quebec government’s Plan Nord, he said he travels to all mines in the province and recognizes where the roads and railways stop. “Just for the government, we saw enormous potential,” he said.

Fitzgibbon said they hope to have airships flying by 2021 or 2022. The exact location of the Quebec operation has not yet been set.

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(12) Comments:

  1. Posted by The Old Trapper on

    Since public money is being used the government should have gone the RFI/RFP route along with public information sessions. Who wants to bet that any corporate participation in Quebec is by friends of or donors to the government currently in power. This “investment” must be made transparent.

    As for the idea itself, as the article states Discovery Air had a short lived infatuation with HAV. I’ve yet to see the technology proven. You need a heck of a lot of helium to achieve a good payload with a rigid frame airship, plus speed is usually a problem, along with icing.

    To prevent icing you have to be above any clouds, which means stronger winds (usually). Plus winds n the area are usually out of the north. If you have a top speed of 180 kph and winds are 60 to 100 kph at altitude it’s going to take you the better part of forever to get anywhere.

    Before public money is invested there should be working prototypes or production models. Right now this is “pie in the sky”.

  2. Posted by Sabourin Andre on

    I agree with The Old Trapper public money investment should always be scrutinized, also the low speed certainly puts a dent in your window of operation when weather is considered head wind does not guaranty a tail wind on the return trip which by the way is probably a non-paying haul back. Before I put my money on the innovation I would look for /where is it used elsewhere/ over what distances/general climate conditions. Still I regard advancing technology as potentially good for mankind.

  3. Posted by flying buzzard on

    It would be interesting to see these big things tested during the summer weeks and see how long and how much load would actually make sense in sending essentials to Nunavik, Nunatsiavut, and Nunavut. Forget the winter season and focus on the few weeks of warmers seasons that would ultimately determine just how this makes sense for those who are thinking of investing this way. Preferably, an access road makes the best economic sense in the long run. Why not? Because when the railroad first opened, the country changed to real good one in many ways…

  4. Posted by oh my G! good luck flying that in windy North on

    Hehe, good luck flying that on 70 to 90 winds or even reaches over 100 km/hr.

    But he was suppose to ask Tax payers first since we are the ones who elect and vote the high Premiers or Prime Minister, not just deciding on his own!

  5. Posted by High Hope on

    I have hope for this to work.
    It is an instead of a highway idea. Governments are responsible for public roads.
    It could also be a way to fix emergency breakdowns of accidents such as fires in no road towns.

    • Posted by But yet, we are the ones electing them! on

      They have to respect the people who elected them first before using the funding!

      You are a tax payer like me!

  6. Posted by Why did Quebec Government abolished all Schools, Educations commissions etc?! on

    He is wasting money to those useless unfitted hybrid airship, would they be suitable to North? when North has highest winds during winter season, blizzard comes by at times.

    We already have good airlines serving more than 40 years plus, now that hybrid airship.
    They must be dreaming, don’t rip us off as tax payers, we pay two taxes! We rather be Canadians.

    We need money for schooling, education.

  7. Posted by Putuguk on

    Helium is the second lightest gas and very abundant in the universe. Unfortunately, Earth does not have very much Helium as any of this gas present in our planet has escaped to outer space. Helium sources on planet earth are finite and have already been depleted. The price of Helium is therefore recently subject to high fluctuation and increases.

    Most Helium produced and commercially available comes from 3 places (Qatar, US and Algeria) as a by-product of natural gas production. Therefore, a Helium airship can have the lowest carbon emissions as possible but still be entirely dependent on the continuation of the fossil fuel industry. The US is the biggest producer of Helium by far in the world and as supply continues to constrict, they would be sure to treat it as a strategic commodity.

    Other uses of Helium have a higher societal value such as acting as a cooling agent for MRI machines, sub atomic particle research, and for manufacturing electronics.

    Even if airships were to be proven practical in the arctic, the material technology for helium airships is just not sustainable.

    • Posted by The Old Trapper on

      Very insightful, and another reason that the government may want to look at outlawing helium for party balloons.
      .
      Many companies have touted rigid airships for supplying remote locations, as far as I know none has come to fruition. That doesn’t mean that battery technology won’t improve to the point where this approach makes sense but I think that a working prototype needs to be available before public money is committed.
      .
      The way I see it the government can aid manufacturing once a prototype is developed and the concept is proven. Government should not be used to fund the speculative development of these airships.
      .
      One another note, if hydrogen fusion ever becomes commercially available the main byproduct is helium.

  8. Posted by Chesley on

    Why not try and see where it goes. What the world needs now is far less judgement & prejudice.

    • Posted by Judgment is Needed on

      Exercising judgement is essential in a world where complex issues and technological challenges arise. I can’t imagine some one calling for less of it! Prejudice is another issue, though I am not sure where the tie in is to this story.

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