Talks of “hybrid air vehicle” remerge only now, it’s looking to transport natural gas

  • Apr. 1, 2010 3:00 p.m.

By Jasmine Franklin

An “air vehicle” is being proposed as an alternative to transporting natural gas in replacement of a potential pipeline raising environmental and property concerns.

Previously recognized as SkyCat, an airship that uses helium and a hovercraft system as way of heavy machinery transportation, has expanded its pitch from a machinery-hauling vehicle to natural gas transportation. The new pitch, called SkyGas, is ultimately the same concept of SkyCat with the exception it will haul up to 85 million cubic feet of natural gas.

In 2005, Ponoka was sold on the concept of SkyCat, which had town council and the regional airport committee members on board and ready for negotiations to make Ponoka’s airport a terminal for the vehicle.

Michelle Stirling, local associate with World SkyCat Western Canada, a branch of World SkyCat, said SkyGas would be the perfect solution in transporting natural gas.

“We have so much potential here in Alberta with our oil and gas industry,” Stirling said. “A lot of sites with oil strike natural gas and it gets burnt off and wasted when it could be profitable. With the SkyCat, we could save it. We are contacting oil companies now and receiving some interest.”

SkyGas would become the alternative choice to the proposed and controversial Mackenize Gas Project that consists of a 1,200-kilometre pipeline used to transport natural gas from the Mackenzie Delta and Beautfort Sea to markets. However, concerns about the pipeline have already been raised addressing issues such as rising costs and the protection of aboriginal land.

Stirling said 15 SkyCat’s would carry the full capacity of natural gas that the proposed pipeline would carry.

“This is a much safer way of transporting natural gas,” Stirling said. “In the end, it will save a lot more money and stop the wasting of natural gas.”

What is SkyCat?

According to an information package, SkyCat is a “hybrid air vehicle” that combines hovercraft landing and take-off technology with an aerodynamic design allowing the vehicle to be navigated like a plane.

It resembles the shape of a boat or blimp and SkyCat’s are designed to take off and land such as an airplane but with shorter runways and a “lighter-than-air” principle allowing the vehicle to lift and fly easier.

The vehicle can travel at about 220km/h and Stirling said that each vehicle costs $225 million. Stirling said in the long run, SkyCat would be money efficient adding that they can land on water, marsh and only require short runways making them easily accessible to broader areas for less money. Maintenance on the vehicles she said would also be substantially less than an airplane.

What does SkyCat want with Ponoka?

SkyCat was introduced to Ponoka in 2005 when World SkyCat Limited had considered building a terminal around the Ponoka Industrial Airport for the airship. Because of Ponoka’s short runway and central location to the oil sands, Ponoka was considered a prime candidate to build a terminal.

At that time, SkyCat was proposing to haul heavy machinery allowing the transportation of up too 220 tonnes of material. This, Stirling said, was valuable to many oil companies allowing them to haul the heavy machinery in a looser time frame and benefit communities from dangerous highway transportation of equipment.

After meetings and considerations, town council and the regional airport committee jumped ship with the idea and agreed it would be an asset to Ponoka.

However, after economic downfalls, the project was put on the back burner.

“It was not the time to take on a capital project,” Stirling said. “However since that time we have talked to local companies about their transportation challenges and needs and we are still pitching the SkyCat idea to clients,” said Stirling. “But SkyGas is another idea we are also exploring at this time.”

If Ponoka were to be approved as a terminal for SkyGas it would not be a designated fly-in area for vehicles, but more a flying point between deliveries.

What happens next?

Discussions between industry and SkyCat are only beginning Stirling said. For World SkyCat it would be ideal that interested companies finance a scale-model of SkyGas taking up to 18 months. Full-sized vehicles wouldn’t be seen until about 36 months later.

“This will revolutionize travel in North America,” Stirling said. “Versions of SkyCat are functioning now in the world. Once people see it works and can transport gas, they can see it can also people and cargo. It’s already being technically proven today, but people are so used to the traditional airplane.”