This is the story of international transport. Currently, most of our goods travel on massive ships, while airplanes carry time-sensitive materials, and trucks haul commodities to their last mile. There is a gap in these delivery methods, and zeppelins can fill that gap splendidly… if they never need to land.

Think about it: a zeppelin is an expensive piece of equipment, yet it is comparatively cheap (and green) to operate. The primary drawbacks are its ponderous velocity, and its need to ascend and descend. These problems can be solved, with a little help from materials science.

Let’s look at the components of this future infrastructure, and the constraints that have held it back (until now)…

Inflatable Towers:

We will eventually have enormous platforms floating on the seas, suspended by layers of inflated bladders. Eiffel Tower meets Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. They will spire miles into the sky, and anchor deep in the waters. Raising anchor, they can scoot from spot to spot. The towers will be their own international port-cities. Cargo ships will bring their loads to the platforms, where shipping containers are hoisted upwards inside a cabled elevator shaft. From those high platforms, zeppelins will grapple these loads, and begin their transit routes.

Without the need to ascend and descend, zeppelins eliminate much of the time and costs for their haul. And, already miles in the air, these zeppelins will catch a free, high-speed ride on the coat-tails of the jet stream.

The containers, strung along rails beneath the zeppelins, will have their own wings. When a zeppelin nears a container’s destination, that container’s wings unfold, the container un-hooks from its rails, and it glides to its own landing zone. No landing pad for the zeppelin. No stops. And, from this miles-high launch position, container-gliders can maneuver hundreds of miles, touching down on remote mountainsides without roads, islands without deep ports, and disaster zones.

Serpentine Trains:

These zeppelins-to-be will have an unfamiliar morphology: multiple solid, lozenge-shaped hulls will be strung together, forming a ‘winged worm’ out of smaller zeppelins. Cables beneath these bladders will attach to the cargo-rails that form a hull for glider-containers. By suspending weight beneath the zeppelin, high winds will have difficulty swaying the mass of the load. The ballast of a ship works similarly.

Why form a long, narrow shape, out of many smaller compartments? To oscillate the buoyant force provided by each bladder, such that the serpentine train undulates. If a compartment’s gasses are momentarily vented into the bladder just behind it, that compartment becomes heavy instead of buoyant. Coordinating these transfers of gas allows the entire vessel to writhe, while using almost no power. A serpentine zeppelin can execute controlled maneuvers, and use this undulation to gain altitude or speed. (Dolphins use a similar trick, oscillating their buoyancy by squeezing and relaxing air in their lungs!)

The Barrier to Development is Almost Gone:

While mis-informed bystanders may still point to the nearly hundred-year-old Hindenburg as ‘proof’ that zeppelins must always fail, the reality is that this technology has been handicapped only by the limits on production of very large sheets of strong fiber.

Graphene, and surely many other membranes, display remarkable impermeability to gases. This alleviates the concern for the escape of hydrogen from blimp-cells within a zeppelin, which is otherwise a major maintenance cost and hazard. As production costs drop, these membranes will be essential for both zeppelins and towers. Long before we rely upon graphene for a space elevator, we will have the newest Androids delivered by tower-and-zeppelin.

Key Markets, Unbeatable Margins:

This tower-and-zeppelin mode eliminates many stages of shipping, and brings cargo close to destinations that are otherwise inaccessible. It avoids most of the cost of fuel, crew, and maintenance associated with ships, planes, and trucks. And, it can operate almost entirely from international waters. If you can have your heavy payloads put directly on a mountain top, from a port on the other side of the world, in only two days, and without building a landing strip, wouldn’t you? I suspect high-mountain telescopes would proliferate, among other things…

What do you think? Write me a reply, and we can delve into specifics, questions, confusions, and the newest research in materials science that makes it all possible!

Written by

Easily distracted mathematician

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