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Imagine you have any kind of conditions for the world, any time period — assuming airships are working on laws of physics (no steampunkish "deus ex machina" garbage), what would make an abundance of airships or balloons actually make sense?

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    $\begingroup$ If you mean dirigibles, they were economically viable for a time. They fell out of fashion because some safety concerns, but mostly airplanes became decently fuel efficient, saw dramatically increased range, and were way faster. Either somehow hampering airplanes or boosting the speed of dirigibles would do the trick, I'd imagine. $\endgroup$ – Nex Terren Aug 15 '16 at 21:15
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    $\begingroup$ Environmental concerns about the greenhouse gas emissions from airplane engines and/or scarcity (high price) of jet fuel. $\endgroup$ – ebhh2001 Aug 15 '16 at 21:52
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    $\begingroup$ "deux ex machina" refers to situations where authors give a fix-all-solution which overcomes a logical inconsistency without really dealing with the problem. In other words, it's a it-works-because-I-say-so solution. A good example of this is that old horse "inertial dampeners". How does Iron Man not have his body turned to jelly with 10-G turns that resemble a fighter jet? Well, you know - Inertial dampeners. And how do they work? Um, cause Stark is a genius, that's how. Right. Deux Ex Machina is basically another expression for massive, logic-killing BS. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Hemphill Aug 17 '16 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ This isn't worth its own answer...but having a much larger/cheaper helium supply would do wonders. One of the contributing reasons why airships fell out of widespread use was because they either needed a ton of (reasonably hard to acquire) helium, or were flying bombs. $\endgroup$ – guildsbounty Aug 17 '16 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ Relevant news from this week: Airlander, the worlds largest aircraft, takes its maiden flight. This is relevant because Airlander is an airship, and has been developed because the backers believe that it has the potential to be economically viable. Read more about their plans for the craft to get an idea of some possible answers to this question. $\endgroup$ – Simba Aug 19 '16 at 14:25

17 Answers 17

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A zombie apocalypse!

No, wait! I'm not kidding. That would be a perfect opportunity to bring back lighter-than-air transportation. After all,... the vessels are lighter than air.

If you have an army of staggering undead rampaging around on the earth below you, wouldn't you want your vehicle to remain airborne even if it runs out of gas?

I would!

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  • $\begingroup$ And the Out-of-the-box-Award goes to... </> On a serious note, those balloons are also pretty silent (*can be at least). After all you don't want to arrive at an outpost shortly before a zombie-army that followed your engine-noise. $\endgroup$ – J_F_B_M Aug 16 '16 at 7:23
  • $\begingroup$ I have to agree - this is the one answer I felt was really out of left field, and that is a compliment. Nicely done and very logical...at least for an undead scenario. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Hemphill Aug 17 '16 at 15:10
  • $\begingroup$ The same principle can be useful for other scenarios as well. Airplanes are good for getting places fast, but if your objective is not speedy travel/transport but simply staying in the air for a long time, airships are much better. That's why we have weather balloons and advertisement blimps. $\endgroup$ – IndigoFenix Aug 18 '16 at 5:39
  • $\begingroup$ This is almost the same situation i was to posit in my own answer. Gladly someone else got it amongst 15 other answers. Anyways, the mutual core is this: airships can stay aloft for long durations on very low fuel requirements, the terrain may be somewhat uninhabitable, there are no biodomes or other such enclosures, and we (they) aren't exiting the atmosphere. Granted, these aren't solely fiscal or commercial reasons, but more fundamental survival concerns. $\endgroup$ – can-ned_food Oct 30 '16 at 8:36
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As mentioned before, hybrid airships are getting back in fashion, it has been made more secure than before and it hits the middle ground between efficiency and speed. enter image description here

It uses less fuel than planes and other air transportation, and it is faster than trucks, trains and ships as the image from http://www.lockheedmartin.com/ so elegantly explains.

It means the best of two worlds. Cheap and fast. And it is able to get through to difficult terrain.

Also it could be used as a cruise ship for the same reason that people sails around in tallships, they are not as efficient as other cruise ships either in crew or in speed, but they have charm and nostalgia - and some people are willing to pay for that.

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    $\begingroup$ "as the image ... so elegantly explains" - I have to disagree. That image makes me cringe at how inelegant and inefficient it is. To start with, why are there two lines? The horizontal axis is unlabeled, so while it looks pretty all the horizontal movement of the lines actually gives you no information. It's visual junk food - it tastes good, but does very little for you. $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Aug 17 '16 at 19:47
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    $\begingroup$ Also, what units does "fuel consumption" use? Fuel per minute? Fuel per mile (or kilometer)? It's entirely possible that something could use significantly more fuel per minute yet be better when looking at fuel per mile. It's not bad enough for me to downvote your answer, but still... it makes me feel dirty. $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Aug 17 '16 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ It really depends on what you do. If you hover, you spend less fuel than a helicopter hovering, there it will be fuel per minute, if you are moving it will be fuel per mile. If i sit in my car waiting for someone on the parking lot the fuel consumption says liter/hour if i drive it says l/100km so the unit is relative to the action. $\endgroup$ – Magic-Mouse Aug 18 '16 at 8:37
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    $\begingroup$ @RobWatts That graph ought to win some sort of prize for being that shockingly awful. $\endgroup$ – James K Aug 18 '16 at 20:40
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Expensive fuel

Airplanes are economically feasible only because fuel is still relatively cheap. But if fuel gets much more expensive, airships are a good alternative to airplanes: Still faster than ships (and not bound to navigable water bodies), but much less fuel use.

In that expensive-fuel world, airplanes would only be used if a really fast transport is needed (for example emergency aid transport; also the military will certainly continue to use them). For most overseas cargo, ships would continue to be the ideal solution, but passenger transport would likely be done primarily by airship. Over land, airships would basically take over the role airplanes have now, although they would feel the competition from trains and trucks more than airplanes do, as their speed advantage is less.

One advantage of airships over a combination of vehicle and ship is that when part of the transport is over land, and part is over water, expensive transshipping can be avoided, as the airship can fly over land as well as over water. OTOH, the lower fuel consumption and greater capacity of ships may still make the ship more economical in those scenarios.

Difficult terrain

Most land-based transport is only efficient if it can go almost straight on almost horizontal floor. Trains cannot go through sharp corners at all, and cars are slowed down very much by them. Making cars and trains that can climb steep slopes is expensive, and they will also be slowed down.

There are ways to get this artificially (tunnels and bridges), but if the terrain is sufficiently difficult not only locally, but almost everywhere, using airships may be more economical than building and maintaining lots of tunnels and bridges.

No connected oceans

In our world, all oceans are connected, while landmasses (continents) are often separated by oceans. Now imagine a planet where things are the other way round: All land masses are connected, but the oceans are not. That means ships cannot simply go from one ocean to another. In that world, airships will have a great advantage over ships simply from being able to transport things everywhere.

Easy to get lighter-than-air gas

Let's assume there's a natural source of molecular hydrogen of helium that doesn't require developed technology to use. Alternatively, assume an atmosphere composed of much heavier gases, so that some of the gases that are naturally produced by volcanism fit that bill.

Given natural and obvious availability of light gases, the concept of lighter-than-air travel would likely have been discovered earlier, especially given that its basics are much easier to figure out than the basics of winged flight.

Earlier development of airships means a longer period to establish them before airplanes are invented.

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    $\begingroup$ I like the "no connected oceans" part of your response. Hadn't thought of that before. Good thinking. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Hemphill Aug 17 '16 at 15:21
  • $\begingroup$ +1 For difficult terrain. Floating a bunch of cargo over a mountain range is a lot more economical, and less risky, than trucking it. Bonus points if the road is seasonally accessible, or like the trucking routes in the arctic - simply melt back into water during the warm months. $\endgroup$ – plast1k Aug 18 '16 at 0:14
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I’ve read about real cases today where gas lifting hybrid vehicles are developed. I think it was in Popular Science, where it was meant for the logging industry. The gas lifting was cheaper to use than the conventional helicopter.

Being hybrid, not lighter than air, it still had sufficient power to maneuver and keep station in real weather conditions (and the overall size is reduced, reducing the wind problem).

So where it can complete is in the sky crane applications, especially where lifting needs to be maintained for long periods of time.

I see companies are still holding high hopes for such ideas.

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    $\begingroup$ Another thing that helps this is that airships actually benefit from the square-cube law, unlike helicopters or planes. $\endgroup$ – Philip Rowlands Aug 16 '16 at 8:43
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Here are the main points:

  • Safety. The ships have to be seen as mostly safe to have the number of passengers needed to make them economically feasible.
  • Cheaper. It can be the fuel, it can be the way it's built, but this method of travel will have to beat out the competition.
  • Efficient. It's going to have to do a better job of getting people or cargo from point a to point b. So it either has to be faster or be able to carry more than other methods.
  • Marketing. I suggest you look at the advent of mass air travel and the ads for inspiration.
  • Beta testing on a smaller scale, AKA war. Before airplanes became a mass transit thing, they were used in war. The funding provided by countries allowed it to be developed so that the tech could be expanded.

You say any time period. We have the tech to do it, but the above covers ANY time period. Look back to when ballooning was first developed--we're talking the late 1700s. If that tech had been funded and developed for war then and developed in the fashion laid out above, planes might not have been developed--or if they were, it would be less advanced because we already had a method of air transportation. I can see planes being developed later to compete with balloons, but if they are already entrenched in society, they will be seen as dangerous to begin with, and might eventually edge out balloons/airships later on.

Let me throw you a link to another question with tech-type answers here on the earliest it could be developed. And the answers on this one covers fuel efficiency. And these answers cover ways to make them better equipped for war.

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  • $\begingroup$ They were tested in war, zeppelin raids were a big thing in WW1 $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Aug 16 '16 at 11:06
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think they need to be faster. Do you know how slow cargo ships move? To conserve fuel they travel slower than old sailboats did. $\endgroup$ – wizardzz Aug 16 '16 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ Also, sailboats are being used to ship freight again. $\endgroup$ – wizardzz Aug 16 '16 at 14:55
  • $\begingroup$ @wizardzz I edited it. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Aug 16 '16 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Separatrix They were used in WW1 but they were not developed enough. Airplanes were being used concurrently, and that's what got developed. Also, Germany lost. And they were the ones that made them. $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Aug 16 '16 at 15:55
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Airships fell out of use for a variety of reasons:

  • Spectacular incidents. The Hindenburg going up in flames is pretty bad publicity for the whole industry, even today that's the kind of thing you think about when someone says "airship".
  • Lack of interest from the military. WWI saw the introduction of fixed-wings aircraft on the battlefield and WWII further accelerated the development of planes. Planes could fill every role better: air supremacy, bombing, transportation and reconnaissance.
  • Because they were slower than planes, they were discarded for civilian passenger transport as well.

However, if we take a look at existing solutions, we find that:

Boats are great for carrying loads of stuff but they are rather slow. The biggest limitation of boats is of course being boats, i.e. they don't go on land.

Planes are fast which makes them unbeatable for passenger transport.

On the obverse, freight air transport can get pretty expensive, and more importantly, it requires an airstrip. That means long stretch of flat hard surface, and that's the kind of infrastructure that can be prohibitively expensive to maintain for a small, isolated town.

Ground transport requires appropriate roads (for truck) or tracks (for trains). Trucks win over trains for the amount of places they can go to, however they are smaller and slower. In any case, they still require a road. In remote areas, that can be a real problem. Sure, you can build a temporary road (e.g. ice roads), but that's neither cheap nor safer.

Helicopter are just ridiculously expensive. It's just... why would you even?

So airships fit right in the middle of this. Their niche: high-volume transportation for low accessibility areas. Whether you live in northern Canada and they just don't have roads, or in the heart of Africa where there aren't much more roads, an airship can bring you supplies there in a moderate amount of time, for a moderate price, all year-round, in pretty much any weather.

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  • $\begingroup$ The key issue is "slower than airplanes". An airplane can be landed, serviced, reloaded and turned around for another revenue generating flight while the airship is still on the way. This is only exacerbated by longer distance flights (A 747 takes @ 8hrs for a trans Atlantic flight while the Graf Zeppelin took 111hr for a flight. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Oct 7 '17 at 5:38
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Excessive and wasteful subsidies

A horribly corrupt government that showers the airship industry with ridiculous subsidies would make airships competitive to other forms of transportation because the heads of state are big friends of airship tycoons who would rather boost their own profits than to have people use cheaper and more economical methods of travel/freight.

Or a permanently nostalgic society that sees airships as a part of their culture heavily subsidizes airships to keep a sense of the glory days before airplanes become better options.

Either way, you asked for what would make airships economically viable. You didn't necessarily indicate that making airships economically viable had to be a rational economic decision.

Or...

Punitive Taxation

In the wealthy Hamptons communities on Long Island, there is currently a vicious debate between the super-rich hedge fund managers and the like who fly to Manhattan on their noisy helicopters on Monday and back on Friday and the residents who would rather keep things quiet. It drives the locals insane.

The WHOLE POINT of the Hamptons is to make a ton of money elsewhere so you can live in a peaceful, quiet community for the rest of your life, shut out from the humdrum of the big city. It truly is a delightful, peaceful place, until some helicopter slices your quiet day to shreds.

So perhaps the local government levies enormous and punitive taxes on airplanes and helicopters, but airships - because they are quiet and less intrusive - are allowed as an acceptable middle ground between the desires of the community and the needs of the wealthy people who made it what it is, because who wants to drive on the Long Island Expressway during rush hour?

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    $\begingroup$ Well put. Gov't subsidies is definitely an option. I also liked the fact that you included the social context into the decision as well. Thank you! $\endgroup$ – Ryan Hemphill Aug 18 '16 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Ryan I have since updated my answer with an inverse of the original: punitively taxing other airborne modes of transportation to keep the noise down in wealthy resort communities. $\endgroup$ – rm -rf slash Aug 18 '16 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ Hahahaha - I love it. Your point is well taken and I will keep it in mind. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Hemphill Aug 19 '16 at 21:11
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Filling the gaps in the market.

As various other people have mentioned, airships are coming back into fashion.

They have a set of specific advantages over other aircraft.

  1. VTOL, helicopters can do this, but helicopters are expensive, complicated and need a lot of maintenance.
  2. Staying airbourne for long periods, this one is a real winner for airships. The Goodyear blimp being the best known example.
  3. Flying slowly, again helicopters can do this, expensively, noisily and uncomfortably, but there is often a need for aircraft to move slowly and airships are a good fit for that role.

They have certain downsides, lack of speed, power and handling in high winds for example. Often considered the biggest problem hanging round them is the Hindenburg, but there have been a lot of plane crashes since then and it's not so fresh in people's minds.

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One idea that comes to mind is keeping the vessel in a (relatively) static area in the sky for long periods. Observatory balloons (e.g weather balloons, guard "tower" balloons) are in everyday use.

This is not a full answer (I agree with all of the above and would like to add), but here's something to look forward to, once we construct some graphene balls:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacuum_airship

Basically, a vacuum airship is much more lighter-than-air than known gasses, and it's non-combustible. When the tech to contain a vacuum with a really light weight material that will retain it's shape (and the vacuum) comes to be (I'm thinking graphene containers), we'll have cheap and efficient airships.

And why stop there? This tech can be used to reduce drones's energy requirements, and small carriers (air-cars) can use these as well. You can have platforms/houses/cities in the air, the sky is the limit (pun intended) :-)

Also - check this out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zO9h_9g2eQ

They make a lot of cheap clean power and are easily transportable.

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    $\begingroup$ Also ballast doesn't need to be dropped- it's just opening a very, very tight valve the slightest amount to increase your weight. $\endgroup$ – Delioth Aug 17 '16 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ This wasn't what I was looking for exactly, but bravo for bringing points to the table that I hadn't considered at all. I really liked your answer. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Hemphill Aug 17 '16 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ FYI they definitely won't work on Saturn. Given that Earth's atmosphere is about 6x as dense as Saturn's, you'd only need a material about 4x as strong as steel for this to work pretty well. $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Aug 17 '16 at 20:33
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    $\begingroup$ Vacuum airships would be quite dangerous. Any failure would likely be catastrophic, and even if compartmentalised, the shock from the collapse of one compartment might cause a chain reaction. Also, graphene is highly flammable and reactive. And while it has a very high tensile strength, it buckles easily. $\endgroup$ – Swier Oct 6 '17 at 12:25
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  • Infrastructure (and regulations) which allow airships to dock on mooring masts in the city center, while planes are restricted to airfields on the outskirts. For instance, they need to be free to rain water ballast onto pedestrians.
  • Access to cheap helium.
  • A clever inventor who finds some tweaks early, like gas engines.

That might give airships their chance until they are replaced by helicopters.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is an interesting point. Many people are unaware of this, but the Eifel Tower was originally designed with the intent to dock airships, as well as several early skyscrapers. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Hemphill Aug 17 '16 at 15:26
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They are economically viable now - the problem is reputation. Everyone has seen the Hindenburg picture, and that is hard for people to deal with. Humans are terrible at risk assessing situations.

For transport of massive items, the only viable options currently are ships, trains, trucks and airships. The first three of those are restricted as to where they can travel (sea, canal, rail and road) so getting something big to an inland wilderness in a cost effective way can only be done by airship!

So... Fix the reputation of large airships (Zeppelin and larger) and the rest falls into place naturally.

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  • $\begingroup$ If they were economically viable now, you'd see them all over the place. But you don't, because they aren't. (High insurance rates because of the history of crashes are one reason they aren't viable.) $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 6 '17 at 4:09
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I would look at the modern popularity and revival of sailboats for delivering freight as a similar situation. Speed is similar to modern cargo ships, and emissions is zero. I think these two situations is enough for people to explore the possibility of sailing cargo, or in your situation, the revival of air ships.

http://www.vtsailfreight.net/#home-section

http://fairtransport.eu/

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Blimps are quite fashion nowadays, they can lift heavy payloads and they are indeed "greener" : low fuel consumption, and as the engines don't have to be really powerful they are quieter than common aircraft. In addition to that, their shapes don't redirect the noise to the ground, unlike airliners.

Furthermore, you can easily put electric engines on a blimp, and as they present a big, useless and static surface (unfortunately not flat), adding solar panels to power up those engines is much more realistic than the Solar Impulse model. By doing so, you almost never have to touch the ground.

Finally, the problems are that blimps are not happy when used in bad weather with strong wind or so, and they are really slow compared to other aerial transportation systems. But for limited-access jobs or commercial cruises they could be a great solution. By the way, some companies already trust in lighter-than-air aircraft like the French Flying Whales. So, for a quieter and greener future, blimps could be a part of the solution.

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Since airships don't require complicated landing infrastructure and can fly over difficult terrain, they are most useful in areas that have poor accessibility by more conventional modes of transport, such as airplanes, trains or automobiles.

For example, according to this article about the Hybrid Airship from Lockheed Martin and Hybrid Enterprises, about 90% of the mineral resources in Africa are already in use, and the last 10% is not economically viable due to poor access. Enter the superblimp. Since it has nice lifting capabilities and can safely land in a fairly level area of two to three (American?) football fields, it can push at least some facilities to viability.

Blimps would make the most sense in a world where building infrastructure would be prohibitively expensive or difficult.

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Redesign and Repurpose.

The classic blimp shape and design is old and stodgy and introduces a major single point of failure. We have lighter, stronger materials and the know how to make something truly remarkable, something sexy, something safe.

The airship should be purpose built. Right now it's one size fits all. Wrong Wrong Wrong. Airships were used because they were the best bet for the technology available. We are way past that. Combine airship and drone technology for remote piloted workhorses or trick it out with the latest tech for the next "big" thing in luxury cruising.

In short, make it sexy, make it safe, make it relevant.

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  • $\begingroup$ I love this. I can almost hear "Harder Better Faster Stronger" by Daft Punk in the background! Haha $\endgroup$ – Ryan Hemphill Aug 18 '16 at 16:15
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Nothing, really, because of their very low speed and being really big sails. It's also the exact same reason that sailing ships have disappeared.

The thing is that (except in the rare cases of really strong storms) internally powered (air, sea and land) craft go where we want, when we want, no matter what the weather is like. That's why we ditched sailing ships and lighter-than-air craft as soon as technologically feasible. Enthusiasts try to make them viable, but don't succeed because these ships aren't practical.

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-military-blimp/runaway-u-s-military-blimp-wreaks-havoc-in-pennsylvania-idUSKCN0SM2F920151029

A high-tech U.S. military blimp designed to detect a missile attack came loose on Wednesday and wreaked havoc as it floated from Maryland into Pennsylvania while dragging more than a mile of cable and knocking out power to thousands.

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i don't know what tech level the setting is but assuming it is around current tech

tl;dr;

  • higher air density makes airships more viable
  • you can run them on solar
  • they fail in a safer manner
  • they require less infrastructure
  • availability of lifting gas
  • need to beat competition in at least some case
  • because (at least some) humans like them

Higher air density/pressure

since an airship works with buoyancy the lift is the mass of the displaced volume, a higher air density reduces the volume required. this does also increase the ease of creating rigid wings airplanes but the added air resistance will make the fly slower than on earth(unless you fly high)

solar/electric drive

if you have light and efficient solar cells you can use electric driven props/turbines for propulsion. with current solar panels you get quite a lot of power, an airship the size of Hindenburg run on solar gets about the same power as the Hindenburg engines (but only during daytime). the availability of fossil (or similar high energy density fuel) fuel might be a problem for airplanes and other heavier than air vehicles.

failure modes

a airplane when it fails will fall out of the sky like a stone, an airship on the other hand will slowly lose altitude (unless the lifting gas explodes). during ww1 the airships was hard to shoot down, bullet holes caused them to leak but not enough to down them in a timely fashion, it is even harder if the airship is built with internal compartments within the lifting gas.

infrastructure

planes need landing strip several km long and in quite nice condition, an airship does only need clear space for it self to land, or it can hover in place and load/unload with a crane.

abundance of lifting gas

  • hydrogen is abundant and the best lifting gas by performance and you can also use it as fuel, but it has the downside that is is very flammable. hydrogen is abundant, it does require some trivial chemistry to extract it from water or other sources. but hindenburg...

  • helium is very rare on earth since it evaporating into space quite quickly, but it is the next best lifting gas and it is safe... but expensive, today all helium on earth comes from natural gas deposits that has trapped alpha decay(helium).

  • hot air is also a lifting gas, it is safe and abundant but requires a constant energy input to keep it warm

  • on earth hydrogen, helium and hot air is the only options since other stuff in not lighter than air, on say Venus our normal air is a potent lifting gas

the competition

in order for airships to be commercially viable there can't exist a clearly more viable alternative - airships is probably not a viable option for bulk transport the same way modern airplanes isn't, but in some areas of the world it is the only option. but airships can pull of tricks like hovering a 100t load for precise placement like a crane. - trains will probably win out in bulk transport over land, at least if the terrain is flat enough to run trains on and high enough demand to invest on the infrastructure - cargo ships will win when transporting bulk over water, but it requires a fright harbor in the ends and a continuous stretch of water in between. - road transport is mostly the same as trains

legal/religious/human factor

human does all kinds of illogical things for example there might exist a religious rule that says it is a sin to fly like a bird, or that some other people pointed out that is some government policy that benefits airship over other modes of transport.

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