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Evidence of meeting #35 for Transport, Infrastructure and Communities in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was airships.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Guy S. Ginter  Acting Director, Impact and Benefit Agreement, Moose Cree First Nation
Barry Prentice  President, ISO Polar
Stuart Russell  President, Livingstone Range Consulting Services

9:50 a.m.

Conservative

Jeff Watson Conservative Essex, ON

Okay.

In one of your first slides, you ranked current solutions for transportation in northern Canada. You ranked them by costs, from cheapest to most expensive. Where do you think you would stick airships in that list?

9:50 a.m.

President, Livingstone Range Consulting Services

Stuart Russell

Between airplanes and trucks.

9:50 a.m.

Conservative

Jeff Watson Conservative Essex, ON

Okay.

Thank you.

9:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Merv Tweed

Thank you, Mr. Watson.

Monsieur Aubin.

9:50 a.m.

NDP

Robert Aubin NDP Trois-Rivières, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Welcome to our witnesses. I thank you for sharing your expertise with us. This morning I feel like I am participating in the writing of the script for the next episode of Back to the Future.

I am not sure I understood correctly. I got the impression a while ago that we are talking about one unit only, one airship only. In your estimation, how large a fleet would it take to meet the needs of the entire Canadian north?

9:50 a.m.

President, ISO Polar

Dr. Barry Prentice

I actually did an estimate of that. Looking at a 50-tonne-equivalent lift, in my view, we need somewhere between 100 and 250 of these airships right now. If we had them available, they could be used.

Mining would probably be the biggest single use. There are many locations where, as Mr. Russell mentioned, you cannot get access to the mine and therefore you can't open the mine because you can't afford to build a road to the mine. If the airships were available, you'd fly over all the difficult areas, bring in your equipment, produce concentrates, and carry out the mineral concentrates on a year-round basis.

So it's anybody's guess, I suppose, but adding up all the various potential uses, between sovereignty, service to the northern communities, the mining, oil and gas, building pipelines, building electrical transmission lines, setting up wind turbines, and all the different things that could be done, it would be between 100 and 250 airships right now.

With all technologies, especially these sorts of game-changing technologies, you don't really find out until you start how many other uses there can be. Once the airships get to a lift size of around 100 to 150 tonnes, they will start crossing oceans.

We see them in the longer term for not just domestic Canadian use; we'll be using airships to lift goods to China or to Europe, or perhaps move back and forth between the tropical zones.

We might actually get tomatoes that taste like tomatoes someday if we bring them by airship.

9:50 a.m.

NDP

Robert Aubin NDP Trois-Rivières, QC

Very well.

There are none today, but you would like to see 150 to 200 airships. At what number would you reach the break-even point? In other words, how many airships would it take to recover the money spent, for example, on ice road construction and to provide those services instead with airships?

What is the minimum required in order to recover those amounts? One or two airships are obviously not enough.

9:55 a.m.

President, ISO Polar

Dr. Barry Prentice

No.

It's a very good question. I've said that in Manitoba for roughly $100 million you could build a hangar and buy three 20-tonne-lift airships and you could serve all of Manitoba, with all the communities that are there. Today we spend roughly $10 million every year on ice roads, and that's just getting goods in. So in ten years' time, you'd be then further head without spending anything else differently.

But in terms of the ice roads, there are two types of ice roads. There's the community-connection ice roads, where people drive around in pickup trucks, with their cars, and then there are the ice roads that need tractor-trailers. As Mr. Ginter said, they get around 60 days' use for the community movement, because you can travel over the ice in a lighter vehicle. It's thinner ice, but it will be safe. But in a tractor-trailer it has to be very thick. So we would still probably build some ice roads between the communities, but you would use the airships to bring in goods year-round.

How many do you need to make a difference? Certainly I see three in Manitoba. You'd probably need five in Ontario and maybe the equal in Quebec. And then in the Arctic you're probably looking at more than that, because you have much longer distances. That would be under current conditions. As you start moving forward and developing resources, then of course things would become possible that aren't possible today.

9:55 a.m.

NDP

Robert Aubin NDP Trois-Rivières, QC

With this minimal fleet, in Quebec as well as in Manitoba, to service mining companies and bring in consumer products, would it be possible to implement in Canada's north, just as we do in the south, the concept of just-in-time delivery? We could then save on everything to do with storage, since there would be guaranteed regular deliveries.

9:55 a.m.

President, ISO Polar

Dr. Barry Prentice

I absolutely believe that, but maybe I'll let Mr. Russell speak.

9:55 a.m.

President, Livingstone Range Consulting Services

Stuart Russell

I believe that's an absolute inevitability. The reason I say this is that when the organizations and locations are supplied in the north now in the summertime by the sealift or in the wintertime by the ice road, as I mentioned earlier, they buy everything once a year and they have to store it. When you want to build a mine today in the north, of course you have to get access to the land, and then you have to get a permit. In order to get your permit, you have to have land use regulations and environmental impact studies done.

If you bring your materials in once a year, and you need a huge fuel storage tank and a huge warehouse because you have to store these things all year, and a 5,000- or 6,000-foot-long runway, you have to get permission to do that. The bigger the area that you're consuming, the longer the permitting time. If you bring your materials in once a week or once a month, so you need a smaller warehouse and a smaller fuel tank, you get your permits, in my estimation, faster. I think today in the Northwest Territories it's considered ten years from the time you find a deposit to go through all those steps to produce it. So if you don't get your revenue coming in until you finish the mine and you're producing, and it takes ten years, if you're able to shrink that because you can do it faster and do it in five years, then revenue comes, and more employment, more taxes, and more infrastructure comes with it for the people who live there.

9:55 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Merv Tweed

Thank you.

Mr. Adler.

9:55 a.m.

Conservative

Mark Adler Conservative York Centre, ON

Thank you, Chair.

Thank you for being here today. It's a very interesting discussion.

Let's just pretend I'm a private investor and I like what I'm hearing and I want to run with this. What's this going to cost me? Let's just say I'll purchase one to start. How much will it cost me to purchase it and to service it? What kind of infrastructure will I need, and how much is that going to cost? And what kind of expertise am I going to need locally to maintain the aircraft? Take me through that.

9:55 a.m.

President, ISO Polar

Dr. Barry Prentice

First of all, of course you cannot have an airship that's bigger than the hangar you have to put it in. You have to decide how big an airship you're going to have and then how big a hangar you're going to have. You have to have a hangar.

The price will depend on the airship size, obviously. We have some ideas for how that might be reduced. But as a rule of thumb for airships, they get better as they get bigger. The price is about $1 million per tonne of lift. It's more when they're smaller. As you get bigger, that starts to diminish. But that gives you a rough idea.

A 20-tonne-lift airship might cost around $20 million. By comparison, the Hercules, which has similar lift—the military, the Canadian government, purchased some recently—I believe are about $89 million apiece. It's much more expensive to buy airplanes.

Part of the reason is that an airship isn't pressurized. It's not going 500 miles an hour. It doesn't have jet engines. Most what you have is fabric and the envelope. So it's a less expensive vehicle to begin with, just to build it. And of course it has a similar sort of life, or at least it should have.

In terms of the cost, part of it is this issue of regulations. The first thing you'd be asking me is when we get started. I'd say that it depends. How are we going to get the pilots trained and set up, and when will we get going? That's an uncertainty. We don't know the answer.

10 a.m.

Conservative

Mark Adler Conservative York Centre, ON

Where are the training facilities for pilots?

10 a.m.

President, ISO Polar

Dr. Barry Prentice

The only place right now where you can actually get an airship pilot's licence is in San Francisco. There's a company there that does this. But it's very expensive. Of course, that licence would not be respected here, because it's not a hot air balloon licence. You would have to do that first.

Typically what happens is that most airship pilots are trained on the job. Typically they have an airplane pilot's licence in the U.S., and then they go through certain training and they get time on the airship with the small companies that are doing this. Eventually they get to sit in the left seat. That's the way it is done.

But we don't really have services like that here today.

10 a.m.

Conservative

Mark Adler Conservative York Centre, ON

Okay.

In terms of maintenance and all of that—

10 a.m.

President, ISO Polar

Dr. Barry Prentice

Oh, sorry, maintenance—

10 a.m.

Conservative

Mark Adler Conservative York Centre, ON

Carry on.

10 a.m.

President, ISO Polar

Dr. Barry Prentice

Maintenance is relatively low. Typically you're looking at using diesel engines, which are low maintenance. The airframe is obviously not an issue. You do have to have an inspection. Those ten days you're spending in the hangar include seven days for an annual end-to-end inspection. It has to have it annually.

The regulations for airplanes, which may be the same for the airships, say that every thousand hours, or whatever that number is, you have to go in for a check-over. There are certain checks that go along with that, and the regulations follow that, except, again, in Canada. Since we have no experience, and we have no airships, we really have no regulations like that.

In fact, this may be an opportunity for us. I don't suggest that we simply carbon copy what's been done in other places. We should look and see what's reasonable for Canada to do, because these are not the same as airplanes.

These are different vehicles. They don't fall out of the sky when the engines quit. They float around. You can come down to earth safely by releasing the emergency valves. They don't have the same kinds of pilot requirements in the sense that it's kind of a boring job, being an airship pilot, because you move pretty slowly. You're going along. It's not very exciting, as it would be in an airplane.

The regulations need to be developed specifically for this technology and not just carbon copied from someplace else.

To give you an example, again, my view is that with $100 million, you could buy three airships, the 20-tonne size, and have a hangar. That's enough to get started. That's a relatively low number compared to what it would cost to start up an airplane operation of a similar size.

10 a.m.

Conservative

Mark Adler Conservative York Centre, ON

In terms of the component parts, what is used to construct the airship? They are made primarily where and by whom?

10 a.m.

President, ISO Polar

Dr. Barry Prentice

There are different designs. Because this technology has been held back for so long, and technology has moved so far forward, it's not clear what the dominant design is going to be. Are they going to be a cigar shape? Are they going to be one of these flat-shaped ones that take care of aerodynamic lift? Are they going to be a non-rigid structure, with a flexible envelope, or are they going to be a rigid structure? Will it be composite materials? Will it be aluminum? Will they have one big gas bag or many cells?

One of the exciting aspects of this technology is that we're going to find out. In fact, one of the things we'd like to encourage is innovation and competition.

One of the arguments that I would suggest to the committee is to think about the notion of public hangars. I know this may be anathema to this committee to even think about any kind of expenditure at this point, and I respect that as a taxpayer. But in transportation it's a shared jurisdiction. The public provides the roads, the private sector provides the trucks. The public sector provides the airports, the private sector provides the airplanes. The public provides ports, the private sector provides the ships.

In the case of airships, don't think of them as being hangars, think of them as being like dry docks. We have public dry docks. They are a place where you could encourage many companies to take advantage of this, so you'd get multiple companies competing in the industry, you'd get rapid technological advance, you'd get many ideas tried, and then we'd find out what works best.

10:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative Merv Tweed

I have to stop you there.

I'll go to Ms. Chow.

May 8th, 2012 / 10:05 a.m.

NDP

Olivia Chow NDP Trinity—Spadina, ON

How does one get a pilot licence? You can't right now, because there are no regulations--

10:05 a.m.

President, ISO Polar

Dr. Barry Prentice

The way the regulations read is that you have to—