He cited the 2010 earthquake in Haiti as an example. Some 316,000 people died, 300,000 were injured and about 1.8 million people needed immediate food and supplies. Getting enough supplies to Port-au-Prince would have required hundreds of Aeroscraft airships -- each one capable of carrying enough cargo for only about 3,000 people. Most of the supplies were delivered by truck from the neighboring Dominican Republic because even with the airport out of commission there was enough roadway left to get the supplies in after they were flown to Santo Domingo.
Airships may have a role for disasters in remote locations, Holguin-Veras said. "Maybe for something like a blackout in Vermont in winter," he said, where roads were impassable and the airport wasn't working, and the amount of cargo needed was small. In that case an Aersocraft might deliver a generator or two, or fuel for a small town.
In terms of cargo-shipping, the Aeroscraft may not be able to compete with ocean ships or trains, Holguin-Veras said. Shipping of any kind is a trade-off between how fast cargo has to move, how much can be carried and the cost of moving it. A plane is an expensive way to send anything, but it goes fast enough that high-value, perishable cargo is worth sending. The flower industry is a good example of this: flowers need to get to their destinations quickly and aren't shipped in high volumes. Meanwhile, a load of iron can sit in a cargo hold for a weeks-long journey, and a ship will carry tens of thousands of tons.
In order for the Aeroscraft to be competitive, it would need to carry cargo that wasn't perishable or didn't need to be delivered immediately. That limits the market it can service
And even though it doesn't need a fully equipped airport, future versions of the Aeroscraft able to carry hundreds of tons will be hundreds of yards long, necessitating a big, clear area. So shipping to city centers is less realistic.
Other companies have tried to make airships viable. Northrop-Grumman has developed an airship for surveillance for the U.S. Army. Meanwhile Cargolifter, a German company, tried to design and build an airship that could carry 176 tons. The company declared bankruptcy in 2002. Cargolifter sill exists, but it is selling a balloon-based crane system rather than a cargo-carrying dirigible. Lockheed-Martin designed and built a prototype for the Army as well, the same contract that Northrup-Grumman won. Now called the SkyTug, the rights to the design were taken over by a Canadian company, Aviation Capital Enterprises.
Jojo-Verge said Aeroscraft isn't trying to compete directly with other modes of transport, but to address markets that are more difficult for trucks or planes. Remote areas is one of those -- there are many places, he said, that have poor road connections and where a Aeroscraft carrying 66 tons would be more efficient than a truck picking its way through a remote trail. If anything, the Aeroscraft might just be in the "sweet spot" that other cargo methods don't handle well.
In addition, Aeros plans to build bigger airships. "The thing is, our design gets more efficient as you get bigger," Jojo-Verge said. A 200-ton Aeroscraft would not use much more fuel than the 66-ton version, and it would go just as fast.
And he sees disaster relief as a good initial market. "Imagine an earthquake in LA," he said. "You could get one of these in anywhere in the city." While it won't ever be as cheap as a truck or train, it's faster than a cargo ship. "We're trying to fill a gap," he said.