Lighter-Than-Air Shipping Capabilities Being Developed for Remote Projects

By Jack Betz 7 May 2015

As cheap-to-produce oil and gas reservoirs become less and less common, operators are also being pushed farther away from easily traversable land with abundant infrastructure and predictable political climates. This trend has made it more difficult for logistics companies to move heavy equipment.

During a breakfast panel on the third day of the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston, Brent Patterson, senior vice president of global projects at Houston-based Blue Water Shipping, highlighted difficulties that are often overlooked in coordinating operations in remote areas. 

The challenges of procurement are well-known for international mega-projects, however, even movement of modestly-sized equipment can pose problems when compounded by right-of-way and regulatory issues.

Patterson also laid out a case study during which Chevron fabricated modules in Idaho and were planning to ship them to Canada. Because of permitting hurdles and complicated regulations around road usage, the units were too large to be moved while fully assembled. 

“A million dollars later—or whatever the exact cost was—the modules did not move,” Patterson said. “They had to go back to Idaho, cut the modules apart, and refabricate them later.”

Panelist Timothy Kenny, director of engineering at Aeroscraft, had answers to at least some of Patterson’s concerns in the form of a bottom-loading airship, which is in its prototype phase. 

Aeroscraft’s helium-filled Dragon Dream prototype can take off vertically and requires only one-and-a-half times the vehicle’s length to land. By compressing its helium, it can also control its static weight, which means that ships will not need mooring systems or large ground crews to land them. “What this will allow us to do is go anywhere in the world without having to develop infrastructure,” said Kenny.

While the vehicle is not practical for every client, Kenny said that those who wish to transport large pieces of equipment over less-than-certain routes may find it cheaper and safer than sending it over road, rail, or sea.

Patterson’s company follows UK-style anti-bribery standards, which means that in shipping equipment to its final destination, it refuses to provide even a single “facilitation payment.” Not complying with this institutionalized corruption can lead to delays in moving cargo. Using lighter-than-air shipping methods could eventually allow companies to avoid bribery-plagued areas on international routes.

An additional use for airships that Kenny proposed was shipping of equipment to arctic regions, where roadways are unavailable until thawing, or are nonexistent and cannot be built due to environmental regulations.

The company will offer 66-ton and 250-ton models and expects the first 250-ton ship to be on the market in 2021. Kenny said the company is in the process of getting the vehicles officially approved by the US Federal Aviation Administration.

Jack Betz is a Staff Writer for the Journal of Petroleum Technology.