The problems plaguing Canada’s isolated, fly-in First Nations communities are well-known: dependence on welfare and public housing, a high cost of living and few educational or employment opportunities. The best and brightest often leave for the South, while those left behind live with crumbling and ill-maintained infrastructure and experience high rates of depression, suicide, domestic violence and substance abuse.
The Indigenous lobby mainly argues for still-more taxpayer funding. This tired tactic is unlikely to produce the desired results, however. If we are to raise the standard of living in fly-in First Nations, we above all need to find ways of generating wealth in and around these communities themselves. Overcoming the daunting barrier imposed by their physical isolation is a necessary condition for new economic activity. Given the challenges, how best could this be done?
The answer could lie in a new twist on an old concept: airships. Yes, those gas-filled, lighter-than-air, cigar-shaped behemoths that arose early in the last century but that went literally and figuratively up in flames in the mid-1930s. This time, however, they would be revived by exploiting the full range of modern design, engineering, propulsion and safety. If we can’t afford to punch through hundreds of kilometres of boreal forest, muskeg and tundra, why not just float over?
Several companies are eagerly at work on modern airship designs, claiming they represent the future of low-carbon, low-cost transportation. France’s Flying Whales is developing a gigantic, 154-metre-long cargo airship with a 60-tonne payload whose major distinguishing feature is that it can pick up or deliver loads without even touching down – or so the company hopes. Flying Whales’ LCA60T (or Large Capacity Airship 60 tons) is forecast to have its first flight in 2022. The venture is subsidized by various branches of the French government and has a major Chinese investor.
In Canada, Winnipeg-based Buoyant Aircraft Systems International (BASI) is developing an electrically driven airship specifically designed to cope with the wide temperature swings in Canada’s North as well as avoid several major cost categories that, it implies, make other airship approaches intrinsically uneconomic. The bottom line, the company says, is that any airship design must be able to transport cargo cheaper than fixed-wing aircraft or roads. BASI’s concept would carry 30 tonnes and would land and take off from a rotating pad that keeps the aircraft pointed into the wind.