PARIS (Reuters) - Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) on Tuesday named a private firm, Hybrid Enterprises LLC, as the exclusive sales agent for its Hybrid Airships, a new type of aircraft that company officials say could revolutionize the way oil and mining companies haul equipment to the Arctic and other remote areas without roads.
Rob Binns, chief executive officer of Hybrid Enterprises, told Reuters in an interview that the new aircraft should be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration by late 2017, paving the way for initial deliveries in 2018.
Binns said there was strong interest in the new aircraft, which are far quieter and produce far less carbon dioxide than fixed-wing aircraft, but he declined to predict when the companies would be able to announce a launch customer.
“We’re going to be able to reduce the cost of transportation to remote projects around the world and open up projects that were previously thought inaccessible,” Binns said.
Binns declined to estimate the size of the market, but said Lockheed typically did not get involved in ventures with markets that were not in the billion-dollar range.
Lockheed and Hybrid Enterprises unveiled their partnership at a joint news conference entitled “The Road not Needed,” at the Paris air show, noting that more than two-thirds of the world’s land area and more than half the world’s population have no direct access to paved roads.
The aircraft was developed over the past 20 years by Lockheed’s Skunk Works R&D house.
Binns said a sharp drop in the oil price could work in the venture’s favor, since the new technology was cheaper for companies to buy and operate than more traditional helicopters.
The initial version of the airship, filled mostly with helium, would carry 20 tons of cargo, but could easily be scaled to roughly the size of a soccer field with 500 tons of capacity, said Lockheed’s Robert Boyd, who began working on airships in 1991.
Lockheed is the Pentagon’s No. 1 supplier, but it decided to team with a commercial reseller to find customers for the slow-moving airships that have four hovercraft-like landing pads and can set down on nearly any flat surface, including sand, snow and even water.
Binns said potential buyers could include small airlines or other firms that ship cargo to remote areas for oil, gas or mining companies, or those companies themselves.
He said demand could come from North America, South America, Africa and Southeast Asia.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Mark Potter