Autonomous Winged Boats Could Carry Priority Freight

A sea-going ekranoplan is being developed by MariNet, the National Technological Initiative in Russia.

By Harry Valentine 2017-09-10 18:18:02

While autonomous vehicle control technology is being developed for automobiles and for commercial shipping, it could also enhance the economics of winged boats that carry freight over extended distances.

Technology Seeking a Market

Boeing recently announced plans to develop pilotless commercial aircraft that would likely carry air freight. The Singaporean company called Wigetworks recently unveiled their wing-in-ground effect passenger commercial vessel dubbed Airfish-8 that rides just above seawater on a wing-generated cushion of air. Wingship of South Korea is developing larger versions of the technology that could carry 50 to 150-passengers. Russia is developing a successor to their wing-in-ground effect Ekranoplan that rode on a wing-generated cushion of air above the Caspian Sea. The project is being run by MariNet, the National Technological Initiative working group along with RDC Aqualines, and a Russian builder has also announced it is considering a civilian 500-ton wing-in-ground effect vessel could occupy a market niche between conventional ships and freight aircraft, carrying medium priority freight over vast distances.

Adapting autonomous pilot technology to large-scale, wing-in-ground effect technology could reduce a major cost item related to extended-distance international transportation. While winged ships traveling at 25 percent of the speed of commercial airliners would incur massive savings savings in fuel cost, the additional amount of time that a crew would spend aboard the vessel would greatly increase another operating cost item. 

Autonomous navigation technology would greatly reduce the operating cost of winged ships and allow the technology to competitively serve a segment of the long-distance, trans-oceanic fast freight transportation market.

Local Remote Control

While autonomous pilot could be developed to navigate the vessel between points of origin and destination, shore-based remote control from a control station could enhance near-shore operation. A Type-B winged ship could become airborne to 150 meters (500 feet) elevation from a commercial coastal runway, with pilot at a remote control station guiding navigation. While accelerating along a runway, an engine-driven air stream directed under the wings could assist the winged vessel to become airborne. 

Once away from shore, the winged vessel could drop to just above sea surface as the autonomous pilot assumes navigational control.

Upon approach to the destination, a local pilot at a remote control station could guide the vessel to touch down on water along a designated offshore seaplane runway located near a coastal airport. Once floating on the water surface, retractable wheels may be extended to allow a tractor vehicle to tow the vessel up a gentle slope to a coastal runway. The equivalent of a semi-submersible technology could also raise the winged vessel to the elevation of a runway at a coastal airport, where airport tractors could pull the vessel to a freight unloading area.

Environment and Runways

Several nations have enacted regulations to protect marine life and require vessels to operate at reduced speed in environmentally sensitive zones. At such locations, installation of physical barriers may be required to separate designated seaplane runways where seaplanes and winged boats touch down and lift off at elevated speeds. Future terminals where winged boats arrive and depart at high frequency may require construction of special canals that would function as seaplane runways. Some jurisdictions could enact environmental regulations that could literally require winged boats to touch down on and lift off from paved runways at coastal airports.

Designated seaplane runways can allow winged boats to be developed to over 1,000 tons total weight and capable of carrying much greater revenue payload than traditional freight airplanes. During touch down and take-off, the vessels would utilize the combination of pontoons and hydrofoils, with a hover-wing designed turbine driven air stream redirected under the wings to assist during take-off. A turbine powered winged ship could utilize engine exhaust heat recovery to improve engine efficiency and reduce fuel consumption, a feature that is absent on commercial airliners. The wing-ship could carry high-priority containers between major coastal cities.

Business Economics

While autonomous pilot technology would significantly reduce commercial aircraft operating cost, fuel consumption remains the dominant cost of commercial airline operation. Wing-in-ground effect vessels consume less than 50 percent of the fuel as an aircraft carrying identical load at identical speed. Fuel consumption increases with the cube of the speed. Increasing vehicle speed from 200 kilometers/hour (125 miles/hour) to 800 kilometers/hour (500 miles/hour) would increase fuel consumption by a factor of 64, causing freight airplanes to consume 128 times the fuel of ground-effect vessels. Commercial aircraft flying at 800 kilometers/hour would consume 16 times the fuel of ground-effect vessels riding the air cushion at 400 kilometers/hour (250 miles/hour).

Ground effect vessels would incur lower fees operating between seaplane runways compared to the fees related to airport touch down and service at the terminal. Even if Type ‘B’ ground-effect wing-ships were required to land at and take off from runways at coastal airports and incur the same airport landing and service fees as commercial freight aircraft, fuel would still be the dominant cost on extended length voyages. Extending time-in-transit with delayed delivery compared to commercial air freight, wing-ships could offer very competitive transportation rates for a significant segment of the market.

Future Aircraft Carrier

A small number of Boeing 747 aircraft have been modified to carry to second smaller aircraft on its back. Other commercial aircraft have been modified with ultra-large fuselage sections capable of carrying unusual cargo. Future research may be able to identify a design layout for a future wing-in-ground effect vehicle with a deck capable of carrying an aircraft. Present generation wing-ship craft depend on an elevated tail wing to provide lift at the stern, to counter the risk of the nose or bow rising high and causing a rearward somersault destabilization.

A future wing-ship could carry a freight aircraft to 440 kilometers/hour (270 miles/hour) or over 40 percent higher than commercial aircraft take-off-speed. Achieving double the lift would enable a freight aircraft of 1,000 tons to become airborne and rise to flight elevation. Upon approach to a destination, coordinated autonomous pilot control could enable a large freight aircraft to touch down on the deck of a speeding wing-ship fly-sailing above water. There may even be future scope to make it possible to transfer containers between a wing-ship travel at speed offshore and a freight aircraft secured on its deck.


Development and refinement of autonomous pilot technologies promises to greatly reduce operating costs of a long-haul freight aircraft, with potential to adapt the autonomous pilot technologies to wing-in-ground effect vehicles. The combination of autonomous pilot navigation technology, future development potential to efficiency carry weight in excess of 1,000 tons and operated to and from designated seaplane runways could, make wing-in-ground effect technology very competitive in trans-oceanic fast freight transportation. There would likely be a market niche for a trans-oceanic freight transportation service that can operate at 25 to 50 percent the flight speed of freight aircraft in exchange for massive savings in transportation cost. It may be possible for transportation researchers to develop a future wing-ship that could operate like an aircraft carrier.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.