This Solar-Powered Airship Could Bring Doctors to the World's Poorest People

Where roads end, delivering medical assistance gets a whole lot harder.

Despite how these United States sometimes appear, the majority of the world isn't yet paved. And where roads end, delivering medical assistance gets a whole lot harder. Sure, helicopters can navigate the bush, but they're also super expensive, which means they're more dedicated to delivering supplies on scheduled runs, as opposed to being on-call ambulances. For a serious emergency in regions without infrastructure, the world's poor are often stuck either trying to hoof it, or hoping for the best.

Enter Jay Godsall and his Solar Ship. Rather than being an expensive, heavy plane that requires lots of room to land and gas to fly, it's a solar-powered airship. Its aerodynamic blimp structure is filled with helium and covered with solar panels, which help the lightweight craft fly without relying on spotty fuel supplies. Godsall has already developed three prototypes of the Solar Ship. According to Fast Company the newest one being built has a blimp that's 65 feet square. The fuselage attached below is capable of carrying an estimated 1,100 pounds, an impressive figure for a craft that only weighs 1,200 pounds. (Solar Ship's largest concept is its Nanuq class, which is projected to carry 12 tons in its solar configuration.)

That 1,100 pound figure is key, as that's enough for a pilot, a doctor, and a nurse to fly out to offer assistance, or for a pilot, a medic, and a patient on a stretcher to fly to a hospital. The airship will be tested this summer in Canada by delivering supplies to aboriginal communities. Assuming that goes as planned, the next step is testing in Africa in 2014, with a tentative flight plan crossing 2,500 miles across Zambia, Congo, and Tanzania in a trek from South Africa to Burundi.

The project is ambitious, as is its Indiegogo fundraising effort. But as crazy as solar-powered ambulance blimps sound, it's the type of concept that–by virtue of being relatively cheap, fairly simple, and requiring less maintenance and far less fuel than helicopters–could make a legitimate impact on under- and undeveloped communities worldwide. There's one big problem I see with the blimp, however: While solar power is free and abundant, helium won't be for long.