Can ‘superblimp’ unlock hidden riches of Africa?

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We’re going to have to add new nouns to some of our favorite sayings if technology keeps up at the pace it does. After all, “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a hybrid air vehicle” just doesn’t have quite the right ring to it.

Idiomatic or not, the world’s largest aircraft, the Airlander 10, is a pretty sweet machine. It is302 feet long (60 feet longer than a jumbo jet), and this monster of a flying contraption is a hybrid in the truest sense — combining aspects of a fixed wing aircraft, a helicopter, and super-light technology, this HAV may look like a blimp, but it does so much more.

If size alone doesn’t make the Airlander 10 a scientific and technological marvel, the fact that it’s capable of hauling tons (yes, plural) of cargo and can stay in the air for up to three weeks at a time should certainly catch your attention.

That’s not the most impressive aspect of the HAV — the gentle giant is actually capable of staying afloat for all that time completely without a human crew. All it needs is some helium, and we become obsolete.

Strong enough to withstand even gunfire but completely silent, the Airlander 10 does not contribute in the slightest to pollution, and just may be the future of air travel (and travel as a whole).

“You could put a hundred bullet holes in this, and you’d still fly for four or five hours before it became necessary to come back down,” Mike Durham, HAV’s chief engineer, said in an interview with The Verge. “They’re very damage tolerant. I could lose an engine — I could lose three.”

At the recent African Mining Indaba event in Cape Town, a Lockheed Martin and Hybrid Enterprises Airship was presented as a vital asset for mining companies across the continent. Using the tag “No roads, No problem,” promoters emphasized its ability to access remote but lucrative mineral sources.

“It will land on water, sand, a field, even ice,” said a Hybrid Enterprises spokesperson.

Industry in need of new ideas

Given the downturn in commodities prices across the continent, and the inaccessibility of key sites — Sundance’s Mbalam-Nabeba project straddles the border of Cameroon and the Republic of Congo and required the building of a 510-kilometer rail line – the Airship could offer relief and opportunity to the beleaguered industry.

Robert S. Stewart, head of mining firm Interop AG, has researched the ship’s potential impact on projects across the continent, including the largest — Rio Tinto’s putative $20 billion iron ore plant in Simandou, Guinea.

“The airship could save the project $7 billion by staging it in a completely different way,” he says.

Stewart believes the new design could bypass many of the most expensive and time-consuming aspects of mining.

“When you build a project in a remote area, you always have to start with a road, a railway line, and a power line before you build the smelter,” says Stewart. “With an airship you can fly straight in, without even an airport, just an area the size of two or three football fields.”

The vast majority of “low-hanging fruit” have been extracted already, according to Stewart, who estimates that over 90% of existing mineral resources in Africa – including vast gold and diamond deposits – are in “hidden, remote locations.”

He believes the industry must innovate and adapt to these new circumstances.

The shape of the future

Mining consultant Stan Sudol, publisher of respected industry website, agrees the ship could be a game changer, that will allow commodities to be fast-tracked to market.

“They can be used to set up initial mine site development for less cost in a faster time-frame as no local airstrip is necessary to start cargo delivery,” says Sudol.

Hybrid Enterprises hope the ships — which are currently undergoing FAA certification — will be in operation by 2018. The cost of each unit is expected to run to tens of millions of dollars, although the price has not yet been disclosed.

Neither is this the only airship preparing for launch. The Airlander 10 from Hybrid Air Vehicles, and the Stratobus from Thales, are just two of the new designs preparing to join the blimp revival.

CNN and foxnews contributed to this report.