17 Mar 2010


Boeing JHL 40

Could zeppelins be the sustainable answer for future transportation? If implemented in large scale, how would they change the way our cities work? To find out we interviewed Matts Lundin and Ulf Svensson, two swedish researchers that have recently developed a study called ”Airships return” financed by SBUF, the Development Fund of the Swedish Construction Industry. This is what they said:

- What roles do you think zeppelins can play in a sustainable city in the future?

Zeppelins or airships and soon air balloon cranes are engaged today in different countries for diverse missions: police uses airships for monitoring traffic flows, cities working with energy planning use equipment for observing energy leaks which is carried by airships, and mobile advertising is another example.
A next step can be using air balloon cranes in city renewals. It is complicated to use conventional cranes in narrow streets and get access to buildings in the middle of huge building complexes. Air balloon cranes can also be used for short distance transportation assignments. We can also think about what will happen when further cargo volumes shall be transported through more and more overloaded infrastructure systems. There is already a volume delay problem because of capacity limitations in the network which is very costly to handle within our existing systems.

– What are the new circumstances that have led to the present Zeppelin revival?

Answer: Four short answers are:
1) Demand of transportation in the north parts of the world in remote areas like Canada and Russia and on the African continent. Oil, gas and mining business are driving forces.

2) Military needs for different purposes where transportation is an important issue.

3) Climate change, related risks: Cities are often located near the sea and therefore we can imagine that if the sea level arises there will be two types of challenges: we will need new buildings for different kinds of needs in the short run which will need to be easy to move, and we will also have to move some types of existing buildings, in sections.

4) It is expensive to build and maintain infrastructure.

– What are the future challenges for zeppelins, in order to achieve the goal of having a place as a sustainable mass transportation system of the citizens of the future?

One challenge will be the development of new types and models of airships that are more competitive. We put very little attention into this craft machines and huge amounts of money into other types of vehicles like trucks, planes, ships and trains. All transport means have their advantages and disadvantages and we should try to use the comparative advantages of every transport system. Often we have intermodal transport chains, which can start with sea freight and end up with trucks, for transporting cargo from one point to another. Zeppelins could be a part of this chain in certain cases.
To change prejudiced opinions among decision makers is one big challenge. We see possibilities in anticipating and steering traffic flows. We have invested in a large scale infrastructure transport system and we have to use it effectively. Every disturbance is very costly and non-efficient cities will in the long run lose economic power. Airships can be a part of the process of making cities more effective, partly as a component in a traffic control system partly as a transport mean for overcome traffic breakdowns. Because of problems within this crucial sector we think that planners, politicians, investors and so on will eventually see this as a potential tool, but we have to start with the easiest solutions to gain confidence towards this technology.

Instant City, by Archigram

– Until now, the most wellknown urban project in architecture history involving zeppelins was the visionary project Instant City, by Archigram, in UK. In wikipedia we can read: ”Instant City is a mobile technological event that drifts into underdeveloped, drab towns via air (balloons) with provisional structures (performance spaces) in tow. The effect is a deliberate overstimulation to produce mass culture, with an embrace of advertising aesthetics. The whole endeavor is intended to eventually move on leaving behind advanced technology hook-ups”. This project is from the 60´s, and some projects highly influenced by Archigram have seen light in recent times, like the Kunsthaus Graz in Austria. When do you think we will see zeppelins flying over the cities as a common thing? What aspects of the visionary projects involving zeppelings will we have to assume unrealistic?

First we have to take into consideration the situation of all transport systems in big cities, where lack of capacity will become even worse in the future and disturbance will become a permanent element. This is one important aspect and a very realistic one. Police monitoring activities from the air, that we have already mentioned before, is already the case in Trinidad Tobago, Russia and USA in a small scale. Big screens above cities are nowadays working in China and Japan and if things go well maybe we will see a project in Sweden in this business.
Unrealistic views... As I said, big screens are already floating over certain cities. But if we want to analyse the future realistic picture of Zeppelins in the city, we could see the case of megacities like Mexico City, Sao Paulo and similar ones, where more and more time has to be used for transportation. Watching zeppelings “floating over” these cities is not possible today and, if we wanted to get a realistic approach on this, we must say that to bring zeppelins into our daily city landscape we should make a more serious commitment on a global scale. This would allow to use them for public transportation in certain cases. We must remember that the Zeppelin Company built two types of giants – Hindenburg and Graf Zeppelin in 1930s. They could handle around 80 people with crew and passengers for long-haul journeys and if they continued to develop this kind of airships we are sure they could handle 200 passengers for commuter traffic. But, to restart this kind of business today is another question. Nowadays, this airship industry is only encompassing a couple of hundreds of people compared to earlier times when around 30.000 people were working in this industry.

- Could you give us a general overview of the prerequisites that a city that aspires to have a transport system based on zeppelins need?

From a technical point of view, we mainly have to take into consideration that we use an airship that can move in the three dimensions of space and that has a considerable volume. By using zeppelins, we could use roofs and water areas as new parking facilities in our cities, for instance. But first of all, to implement a transport system which includes zeppelins we need an overall strategy, specific for every situation, which considers that all transport means have their comparative advantages. Our present transport systems have problems with capacity and are sensitive for disturbances. To come around this we maybe should look the way around when we construct, and bring and coordinate improvements within other areas of design. For example we may investigate how we design and build new houses and buildings and explore new ways to follow the statement “more must be done with less material” proposed by Buckminster Fuller. We can imagine a building system where frames come from long distances and bulk material comes from the building area. In the future it will maybe not be possible to act like we have been doing in the last century, and this is not an easy question.
Another overall strategy that we have to consider is that we must minimize the need for different types of transportation. Transport demand and transport supply are a complex topic that we are developing with our work. One of our scoops in our new research study is the transport demand and supply for building wind power in Sweden. New constructions and designs open up for other possibilities to transportation with airships, and new airship designs give and will give new possibilities for the wind power industry.

– What countries / territories will lead the implementation of zeppelins into their systems of transportation in the near future in your opinion?

Remote areas with natural resources, mega cities and areas affected by climate change. Maybe UN and there aid operations can be a turnaround force. We noticed what happened in Haiti, and now in Chile, and we can say that airships would be one solution among others in situations like this.

– Is there any other thing that you would like to say to our audience, regarding zeppelins linked to city planning?

The extent of prefabrication can increase if we can convince the power in the world to put extra resources into lighter-than-air solutions. Combinations of building elements/constructions coming from long distance with airships with methods/materials which only need short transportation can be an alternative. This could be a prerequisite for education of architects in the future when climate change and energy shortage could be our new reality.

Thank you very much, Matts Lundin and Ulf Svensson, for this interesting interview!

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