For most people, the word “airship” calls to mind two things: a flaming Hindenburg zeppelin and the Goodyear blimp. But that may be changing. The Los Angeles Times reports that blimps, zeppelins and other lighter-than-air aircraft are making a high-tech resurgence.

Both military and civilian customers are finding new uses for the huge machines. Because they can float over an area for days, they’re often a good way to monitor stretches of land that an airplane could only fly over for a few hours at a time. In Afghanistan, more than 100 simple, blimp-like airships, known as aerostats, hold cameras to keep an eye on the ground for miles around military bases. That’s up from fewer than 10 of the machines in 2004.

Much of the work done by airships today involves surveillance and advertising, but new types of airships offer new possibilities. Worldwide Aeros Corp. in California is building a 265-foot zeppelin that combines airship and airplane technologies. With piston engines, it can take off without a runway, and a buoyancy control system gives it the ability to maneuver in ways planes cannot. The company hopes to launch the first of the ships early next year and demonstrate its ability to carry cargo.

The possibilities of airships go way beyond an eye-catching steampunk vision in the sky. Companies that make the ships say they may be able to deliver fuel, construction material or food to remote villages that are hard to reach in other ways. They generate less greenhouse gas than cargo jets, offering a cleaner solution for air transportation, and they provide a less invasive way than truck to navigate environmentally sensitive landscapes. They can also help with climate research and other scientific missions that require staying in a particular spot in the air for an extended time.

There’s also, of course, an entertainment angle. California-based Airship Ventures already offers Zepplin tours. It’s planning a tentative flight to Alaska next June if it can line up partners, which might include cruise ship companies or documentary filmmakers.

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