Some hard questions are being asked about airships and their viability in northern Canada.

About a hundred people are on hand for a two-day conference in Winnipeg about the ships and their ability to haul hundreds of tonnes in freight.

The ships essentially look like massive blimps with a large container underneath.

Already, some designers have told chiefs and other delegates the cost savings of using the ships as freight transports would be immense.

Representatives of Varialift Airships say First Nations using airships could reduce the cargo rate they currently pay airlines by over four times.  Unlike planes and ice roads, they say airships can transport cargo in any weather.  Chief were told they can travel up to 145 km/h, operating 18 hours a day — and can carry up to 50 tonnes of goods each trip. They also say the ships could be used year-round.

However, a researcher from the National Research Council is questioning that.  Norman Ball says he knows the ships have de-icing technology. But he wonders how they would deal with six inches of heavy, wet snow on top of them.

Another scientist from the University of Manitoba says they’ve been testing out an airship, but have problems getting the hangar door open in winter due to high snow drifts.

Still, the operators of the ships are optimistic they could work in northern Manitoba and northern Saskatchewan.

Alan Handley is the director of Varialift, a company that’s pitching the idea to Manitoba chiefs.

He says all you need to receive the first shipment is a big enough space for the craft to touch down on:

“What you would need is an area of 100 metres by 50 metres, reasonably flat and reasonably solid — not on concrete or anything of that nature.  If you’ve got that sort of area — and we need, of course, walk around space, as well — then we can fly it in on two visits and the base will then be set up and be operational.  So we’re talking about, depending on the distance, we could set it up within a day.”

He adds the ships have enough fuel, which is helium, to go six thousand miles on a single trip.

According to Handley, one company in Winnipeg could potentially service all of northern Manitoba and northern Saskatchewan regularly.