One of the last things you might imagine seeing hovering above the dense jungle canopy of the conflict-riven Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa is a futuristic-looking air ship powered only by the sun.
But for the last 30 years, Canadian entrepreneur Jay Godsall has been hoping to do just that. Since high school, he has dreamt of building a solar-powered airship to help deliver critical supplies to remote areas in Africa. Now, finally, his project is beginning to grow some wings.
“Airships are older than radios, older than automobiles,” claims Godsall, Founder of Solar Ship, the Toronto-based company now building the unique aircraft, “but no one has quite had the mission to do something like this with one.”
The solar ship is a hybrid aircraft - part bush plane, part airship - powered by solar panels, lifted by helium, and designed to access some of world’s most hard-to-reach places, where roads don’t exist and planes can’t land.
Solar panels - spread across the topside of the aircraft - power an electric motor, which then turns a propeller and provides the thrust necessary for taking off, flying and landing. The aircraft is suspended by a giant helium-filled balloon, which generates lift statically (exactly like a blimp.) The buoyancy from the helium also helps counterbalance the weight of the solar panels and batteries.
The real secret to the solar ship, however, is its ability to land just about anywhere. Unlike an airplane or airship, it is capable of taking off and landing in an area the size of a soccer field- one piece of infrastructure found virtually everywhere in Africa.
So far, the company has successfully built and piloted three solar ships of different sizes in Canada’s rugged and remote northern territories. All of these reasons are why Godsall believes the ships are perfectly placed to deliver critical supplies to remote areas in Africa.
One of the greatest challenges to providing emergency relief services — such as medicines, vaccinations, food and essential supplies — is access. Traditionally, small bush planes and fully loaded 4x4’s have been used to serve the more “off-grid” communities, but their reach can be limited.
For example, in a place like the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, thick jungles and rolling hills make it impossible for even the smallest planes to find enough space to land. Most rural roads are seasonal, and in the rainy season - when you have the highest potential for the spread of deadly diseases like malaria, dengue fever and cholera - these roads become nearly impassible.
If a car gets stuck or runs out of fuel, an entire stock of cold vaccines (which need to be kept below a certain temperature) can spoil.
A solar ship could simply drop in to these places without infrastructure, roads, or landing strips, and deliver the essential goods.
Godsall says it’s about solving the “last mile problem”, a phrase more commonly used to describe the difficulties in connecting the final leg of telecommunications networks to remote customers. In the context of international aid word, however, fixing the last mile gap can mean the difference between life and death.
“The project is about delivering medicines, and making sure people don’t die” claims Michel Reugema, Godsall’s former classmate who is from Burundi, in a Solar Ship fundraising video “The idea really hit home when my younger brother went 80 km outside of Bujumbura [in Burundi] and had a medical condition. He needed supplies, couldn’t get them, and died.”