Airships considered for more environmentally friendly mining in remote locations

Quebec Mining company considers feasibility of airships for product transportation to and from remote mine sites.

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Quest Rare Minerals looks to the sky for efficient and environmentally friendly solutions to their mine transport problems: Lockheed Martin's airships with capacities of 20 tons.

Quest Rare Minerals looks to the sky for efficient and environmentally friendly solutions to their mine transport problems: Lockheed Martin's airships with capacities of 20 tons. — Photo: Quest Rare Minerals

Quest Rare Minerals Ltd. is an exploration and development company with a focus on Strange Lake—a site with notable rare earth deposits. Strange Lake is located in a remote area of northeastern Quebec. This new plan of action eliminates the need to construct transportation roads.

One of the biggest issues Quest Rare Minerals faced throughout exploration of the site at Strange Lake is the cost and environmental disruption of shipping products from the site to the Atlantic coast, 170 kilometres by land. “The road was an issue,” said Dirk Naumann, president of Quest Rare Minerals. The road would cost huge amounts of money to build and maintain, and would put unwanted stress on the surrounding environment.

“An even bigger issue was that shipments could only happen from July to early December. For the rest of the year we would have to build stockpiles,” Naumann said, “stockpiles of hundreds of millions of dollars of material. We were looking for alternatives to make the production more efficient.” This is when Lockheed Martin approached the company with a solution that takes transport to the next level—airships.

“Nobody was seriously considering transportation by air because the airships were not commercially available,” said Naumann. The idea bounced around, but no experienced aviation companies were working on the project yet—until Lockheed Martin took the case. “Lockheed Martin is an aviation company with a long history of successfully launching new vehicles into the air,” said Naumann. Quest trusted Lockheed Martin’s success and experience in aviation, and began discussion of airships used for mine product transport.

Lockheed Martin has taken a few aspects of airship transportation into account. First, and most importantly, who will fly these vessels? “Lockheed has built a simulator,” Naumann said. The simulator is already being used to train pilots. “You can have the best airships in the world, but without pilots they are useless. We will need a large number of pilots to run airships day and night.”

Lockheed Martin “opened a totally new opportunity” for mine companies across the globe, Naumann said. The next order of business is to determine the size of ship necessary to make this flying form of transportation feasible. Quest estimates that four times a day, each airship can ship 20 tons. "Over an entire year, accounting for weather and maintenance, we can easily ship our output with the airships,” Naumann said. Aside from regular production, Quest will need a couple of airships in operation for construction of the site at Strange Lake.

The well-being of the surrounding environment was a huge factor in Quest’s decision to consider airships. “Road construction has a clear impact on the environment,” said Naumann. “We would interfere with the caribou.” A herd of caribou migrates directly through the area of the proposed transport road. “Cutting a road through this pristine environment has a certain impact. The aboriginal groups were also concerned about attracting hunters from other areas who would go after the caribou,” Naumann said Quest sought solutions in the sky to respect these concerns.

Airships are a viable option for future Quest mines, as well as other similar mines across Canada. “The 20-ton size is not exactly the right size for us, but Lockheed Martin had to make a decision for us regarding the transport capacity,” Naumann said. The 20-ton size, however, will work for the first few years of production.

“By about 2025 Lockheed Martin will have commercially available airships carrying 90 tons,” Naumann said. With the capacity increased by almost five times, the opportunities for their use in mining open yet again. The increased size will increase efficiency, and will be much more viable for future mines. The biggest catch to these airships is that mine companies need high-priced commodities to justify their use right now. Quest’s Strange Lake site meets that requirement, and larger transport capacities will open up the possibilities down the road.

Quest Rare Minerals expects to complete a new feasibility study with the inclusion of airships over the next few years. If all goes well, the Strange Lake site will enter production by 2021.

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