Flying Whales eyes cargo revolution with a familiar solution

Could rigid airships be the answer to the eco-friendly cargo movement solution? Kirstie Pickering speaks to French aeronautic startup Flying Whales to find out.

Flying Whales is producing a blimp-like aircraft that can transport and drop off cargo mid-flight. Credit: Flying Whales

Could the reintroduction of zeppelins – known as rigid airships in the modern day – address some of the most common challenges of cargo movement? French startup Flying Whales believes so. 

Launched in 2018 in Suresnes, a western suburb of Paris, France, Flying Whales is developing a Large Capacity Airship that can carry 60 tonnes (LCA60T) of cargo at a time. Its first application is set to be the transportation of wood from forest sites that are difficult to access.  

The first assembly line will be located in Laruscade near Bordeaux, and construction will begin in early 2024. Two other assembly lines are planned – one in Quebec for the Americas market, and one in Asia, with the exact location for the latter to be determined.  

The company's goal is to become the world's first CO2-free heavy-lift transport system in operation and expects the first airship to be ready for its inaugural flight in 2025. But how exactly does it work? 

Old designs, new technology 

The LCA60T’s ability to load and unload in hovering flight means that the airship doesn’t require any type of transport infrastructure, such as roads, airports, or ports, during its operations.

This is made possible by a system of winches that allow for the loading of cargo in the hold and transport the overly-bulky pieces in slings or attached underneath the aircraft.   

The airship will measure an impressive 200 metres long, with a diameter of 50 metres. These dimensions would make it the largest aircraft in the world, with a comparable length to a TGV train carrying 500 passengers – and its height is equivalent to that of the Arc de Triomphe. 

Thanks to its hybrid propulsion – which will eventually be fully electric – and to its different propulsion points, the LCA60T takes off vertically and can cruise at up to 100 km/h. The airship will carry about 200,000m3 of helium to provide the aerostatic lift that keeps it in the air. 

The Airships can carry construction materials to hard-to-reach locations. Credit: Flying Whales

“A hybrid propulsion system will be used initially,” says Romain Schalck, head of communication and spokesperson at Flying Whales.

“This is an internal combustion engine connected to a generator to produce electricity. This electricity is then transmitted to electric motors which, in the case of the LCA60T, will propel the airship using propellers.

“In the case of the full electric propulsion, which will be introduced by the end of the decade, the combustion engine and its associated generator will be replaced by a system that does not require fuel combustion, such as batteries or fuel cells.”

The airship will measure an impressive 200 metres long, with a diameter of 50 metres.

To ensure its protection outside of its missions and for routine maintenance operations, each LCA60T will have a base that includes a hangar and a flight area. This is not an airfield runway, but instead a circular area that allows the airship to take off vertically.

The base is also equipped with a docking system called Airdock to move and secure the LCA60T on the ground. For specific needs, an equivalent mobile system can be deployed to extend the mobilisation time of the LCA60T outside the range of its base.

The sustainability factor 

Any new company entering this market must make sustainability a key consideration for its operation. For Flying Whales, its core mission is to reduce the environmental footprint of cargo transport. 

“This commitment is based on the fact that the solution does not require any transportation infrastructure and that the airship is designed to have the lowest possible impact on the environment throughout its life cycle,” says Schalck.  

The airship is designed to have the lowest possible impact on the environment throughout its life cycle.

“In terms of emissions, transport by LCA60T is infinitely more sober than by helicopter, for example, since it does not require any energy expenditure to overcome gravity. Depending on the type of mission, it will consume 10 to 30 times less fuel than a helicopter.”

Analysis of the lifecycle of an LCA60T shows that the main environmental impact is that of kerosene, despite the use of a hybrid electric propulsion system.

Flying Whales says that transporting wind turbine parts by air will be more efficient than by road. Credit: Flying Whales

More generally, it is the fossil resources used that have the greatest impact on this balance. It should be noted that this impact is inherent to this type of industrial activity and not specific to the LCA60T programme.

To reduce the scope of the most negative impacts, an eco-design process has been implemented that allows Flying Whales to work on alternative solutions to kerosene use.

“We are studying the possibility of using alternative, non-fossil fuels such as those made from organic waste, for example,” notes Schalck.

“Secondly, and in accordance with the LCA60T’s development roadmap, the thermal part of the propulsion will be replaced by energy generation from a green hydrogen cell.”

A wide range of applications

When the startup launches operations, the first application of the LCA60T will be the movement of wood in hard-to-reach locations.

In France, augmenting the wood harvest responds to its government's objectives for the coming decades.  

The National Forestry Office (ONF) is associated with the project as a technical and financial partner and will be the first client of the solution. The development of the solution was largely based on responding to the needs of this sector, allowing an effective focus in the design process.

Flying Whales says it's airship will be five times less expensive than current air cargo transport solutions. Credit: Flying Whales

Schalck says other applications show great potential, such as with the transportation of wind turbine components, the installation and maintenance of high voltage electrical towers, construction support in remote or congested areas, humanitarian aid, and transportation in industries like aerospace.

Flying Whales is also developing a mobile hospital solution called Flying Care, which is designed to provide care to isolated populations

We are studying the possibility of using alternative, non-fossil fuels such as those made from organic waste.

“In all these markets, we have identified a potential demand for between 700 and 800 LCA60T,” says Schalck.

“Our prospects can already reach us to present their needs and start to work together on letters of intent to secure future volume of activities.”

What lies ahead for Flying Whales?

Flying Whales has received several different sources of funding, including public funding in France and Canada, public and private shareholders in France – such as Bouygues and Groupe ADP – and foreign institutional shareholders in the Quebec Government via its financing vehicle Investissement Québec.  

The end of 2024 will mark the culmination of the engineering phase and the beginning of industrial activity for Flying Whales. This is when the construction of the final assembly line will be completed and the assembly of the first LCA60T will begin.

The LCA60T could improve the humanitarian logistics chain and facilitate cargo to disaster areas that are cut off from their transportation infrastructure. Credit: Flying Whales

One year has been allotted for the assembly of this first aircraft – and this will take the startup to the inaugural flight of the first aircraft at the end of 2025.

A year and a half of flight tests will then allow the LCA60T to obtain its type certificate, a prerequisite for the start of commercial operations scheduled for 2027.

To move towards a more resilient world where trade would weigh less on ecosystems, it is necessary to invent new models.

“Economic development in the world is a source of improvement for the living conditions of millions of people on earth,” concludes Schalck. “But growth has also had significant negative impacts on the environment.

“To move towards a more resilient world where trade, as beneficial as it is, would weigh less on ecosystems, it is necessary to invent new models, particularly in the transport sector. This is what Flying Whales wants to do.”