While the humanitarian need is clear, whether a giant solar-powered airship is the solution Africa really needs, or can afford, is perhaps less so.
Dr Amy Lehman, founder of Lake Tanganyika Floating Health Clinic, an organisation that uses small boats to supply medical treatment around the great lake, including eastern Congo, has her reservations. She says a giant hovering aircraft no one has seen before might bewilder some communities. “The eastern Congo is not a place you can just pull up in your hospital ship.”
Dr Lehman’s organisation uses small boats in its operations, although they would eventually like to build a large ship — of the water going kind. However, she says the organisation has taken its time “because we need to build the right relationships with local communities and partners,” something she believes anybody using a solar ship would also have to do.
However, Solar Ship is not an aid organisation. They are an aircraft manufacturer with a social agenda, aiming to lease or sell solar ships to organisations and partners as another tool in their transportation arsenal.
Still, they may find it difficult to lift off in the African market.
First, they are not cheap. A 30m (90ft) ship able to carry 500 kg (1000lb) - enough for one medical personnel and supplies to service a town of 2,000 people - costs around $1 million to buy outright, or around $30,000 a month to lease. While this is far less than a new bush plane, which can cost upwards of $5M, it’s still no small chunk of change.
“It’s priced for large agencies and foundations,” Dr Lehman says, “but they aren’t always the ones reaching the last mile. It’s usually the smaller, grassroots organisations who are on the ground- who know where soccer fields are, so to speak.”
She says other technology focused projects, such as Matternet, a project that aims to use a network of unmanned drones to perform similar deliveries, could also face the same problem.
Then, there’s the issue of helium. The price of helium - normally generated as a byproduct of natural gas mining - has doubled in recent years, from $95 to $200 for a 500-baloon capacity tank. While you can find balloon vendors in almost every African city, creating a supply chain for a fleet of 30m wide balloons won’t be easy, or cheap.
In fact, California-based Airship Ventures, operators of the world’s largest passenger airship, the Zeppelin Eureka, which ferried passengers around Northern California, shut down last year after just four years in operation. The company cited a “world helium shortage” that increased the company’s operating costs and a long-term sponsor “had not materialised”
There may be more financial support for aid delivery than for luxury Zeppelin cruises over California’s wine country, but Solar Ship may still find themselves up against similar challenges.
Late last year, Solar Ship launched a $1m crowdsourcing campaign on the IndieGoGo crowd-funding website to pilot their first ‘African Mission.’ Sticking to Godsall’s 30-year old dream, they will fly a solar ship from Cape Town to Lake Victoria, stopping every 500km to deliver fresh medical supplies to surrounding villages through local partners.
With less than 20 days to go, they’ve raised barely $6,500. However, Godsall claims that they have investors willing to back the full $1m, if the campaign doesn’t succeed.
“Many people have been trying to bring back the airship,” says Godsall “but then the laws of physics kick in and these projects have a tough time finishing. When you’re defying gravity with something new, everything needs to be checked out and properly tested before you send it up.”
So why should they succeed where others have failed? Persistence, he says. “We build em’, fly em’, build em’ and fly em’, and now, we’ve nailed it.”