Future Possibilities for Fast Freight Transportation

The KM wing-in-ground vessel, one of the largest vessels of its type (ITAR/TASS)

Published Jun 27, 2020 12:40 PM by Harry Valentine

Examining the long-term trend in commercial vehicle transportation technology development offers possible clues into potentially successful future development. At the present time, several manufacturers are either developing or undertaking research into future development of commercial transportation vehicles.   

Long-term Trends

The long-term trend in ship transportation has been the ongoing development of progressively larger vessels that carry much greater payloads at lower cost per weight unit or per unit of freight. That long-term trend also manifest in passenger ships and including to present day tourist ships. Smaller, high-speed commercial passenger vessels were developed for short-haul services such as between an offshore island and a mainland at lower transportation cost than airplane transport. Innovation led to the development of the commercial passenger jet that eventually offered lower travel prices across the North Atlantic between the USA and Europe.

A segment of the freight transportation market seeks fast delivery even at premium transportation tariffs, the basis of air-freight transportation services. Their vehicles are restricted to carrying comparatively miniscule payloads compared to maritime and railway transportation service. The largest freight aircraft incurs a takeoff weight of 640-tonnes (1.4-million pounds), just under the maximum allowable weight on airport runways. High-speed mono-hull hydrofoil vessels are restricted to a maximum weight of 400-tons (800,000-pounds), which could also be the maximum weight of a hybrid hydrofoil – wing-in-ground (W.I.G.) effect vessel. Innovation might increase the lift-off weight of W.I.G. vessels.

Future Fast-Freight

Vehicle size restrictions and runway weight limits would likely restrain future development of airfreight transportation vehicles to under 800-tonnes. While single-hull hydrofoil vessels are restricted to 400-tons weight, there might be potential to develop twin-hull and triple-hull hydrofoil arrangements that could be applied to W.I.G. vessels of up to 800-tons and 1200-tons lift-off weight. At present, the German-based Tandem-Wing company has built triple-hull configurations into their W.I.G. vehicles. There may be potential for hydrofoils to allow heavy weight versions of the technology to accelerate to higher speed prior to ground effect wings taking the load. 

Super-size W.I. G. vehicles would require special designated channels along which to accelerate to lift-off speed, and upon arrival to decelerate to touch-down speed. Retractable hydrofoils would allow the large W.I. G. vehicle to cruise close to ocean surface, to minimize fuel consumption. Alternatively, a triple fuselage flying boat equipped with hydrofoils could lift off from and touch down along the same designated channels. A modern mega-size flying boat designed to fly at high elevation above land could touch down on and lift from designated channels located along ocean coast lines, inland lakes and wide sections of deep rivers. 

Speed vs Distance

The airline industry provides the precedent as to choice of technology based on travel speed and carrying capacity. Slower flying propeller airplanes carrying the same number of passengers as faster jet planes routinely operate along short commuter routes, where they offer fuel savings. On long-distance routes, high flying speed allows jet aircraft to operate return trips, carrying more passengers or freight while earning greater income. The market niche for slow flying airfreight vessels that consume minimal fuel while carrying very high payload, would be short routes of up to 1,000-miles that allow for overnight return trip service.

\Slow moving transportation vehicles achieve cost competitiveness by carrying massive amounts of payload, as is the case involving large container ships. A market might actually exist for long-distance vehicles that carry much higher payload at lower tariff than airfreight and at much greater speed than ships. While there might be possible market application for smaller W.I.G. vehicles operating short-haul passenger or freight services, operating extreme-distance trans-ocean service would require low-speed airborne vehicles to carry many times the payload capacity of airfreight planes, offering tariff savings to customers while compensating the operator for being restricted to low-frequency return trip service.

Market Requirements

There might be a market for a transportation technology that carries less freight than a railway train at higher speed, but more freight while traveling at lower speed than airfreight. The truck industry occupies part of this market niche on land. A lower-than airfreight speed technology that carries equivalent load at much lower cost/tariff than airfreight would likely find market application along comparatively short-distance routes across water, where overnight return trip service would be possible. The lower-than-airfreight tariff and faster-than-truck delivery would likely attract sufficient number customers to warrant operation of a higher capacity vehicle.     

Long-haul airfreight and container ships provide service between several duplicate pairs of coastal cities. A trans-ocean technology capable of greater speed than container ship and able to carry greater payload than airfreight and at a fraction of the transportation cost, could develop a unique market niche. Autonomous control/navigation would reduce crew costs. Earnings from greater payload volume would justify reduction in both travel speed and number of return trips within a given time frame, compared to airfreight. While hydrofoil and hovercraft vessel designs would be impractical, alternative suitable trans-ocean vehicles would require wings.

Engine Requirement

While the 6-engine Antonov-AN 225 represents the world’s largest freight airplane, its market application is limited due to high operating cost. A single turbine engine driving multiple propellers might be suitable to operate in ground effect mode, while a twin turbine engine that drives multiple propellers or propulsion fans might be applicable to high elevation flight. General Electric is currently working on a low-weight, high-powered, closed-cycle turbine-electric future aviation engine that would likely find application propelling fast mega-size freight vehicles over extended distances. Such vehicles would likely touch down on designated water channel runways.    

Ports and Terminals

A single or twin engine 1,200-ton winged vehicle that lifts off from and touches down on designation water channel runways would load and unload containers courtesy of a floating crane could transfer containers between winged vehicle and barges. The barges would sail between a nearby terminal and the winged vehicles. There may be scope for dock cranes designed to load and unload mega-size container ships, to load and unload a mega-size triple-hull, tandem-wing ground effect vehicle that would sail between port side and designated runway channels. Such a vehicle could carry containers in each of its three hulls.

The winged vehicle could also be designed with semi-submersible capability and carry containers on barges that would fit inside the 3-hulls. Upon arrival at a destination, the barges would be floated out and moved by tug to dockside. Tugs would move laden barges from dockside to the winged vehicle where barges would be secured inside the hulls. A hydrofoil equipped winged vehicle of below 1,200-tons (1090-tonnes) would proceed to the designated channel where it would accelerate to lift-off speed. A heavier vehicle would likely require an alternative take-off method.

Super-Sized Flying Boat

During the early development years of commercial aviation, large planes lifted off from, touched down on and traveled between water runways. Many decades later, commercial airports are approaching the limit as to the size and weight of commercial aircraft they can service, relegating a plane or ground effect vehicle of 1,200-ton lift off weight to seaplane runways. A multi-hull ground effect vehicle or seaplane built to over 2,000-tons or higher laden weight would likely be able touchdown on a seaplane runway. Precedents well proven in the maritime sector could contribute to providing a lift-off option for such a vehicle.

After barges laden with containers are taken aboard a triple hull plane with semi-submersible capability, it would proceed to a ramp where sets of parallel railway lines extend on to the seafloor. A rail vehicle carrying up to 25-tons on each of 200-axles would carry the laden plane from water on to land and to a coastal rail runway of up to 10-miles in length. Electric power would accelerate the rail technology to above the winged vehicle’s lift-off speed, when wings and aeronautical engines would continue to accelerate the vehicle and propel it at flight speed. 


Precedent in Asia – Europe container trains service indicates a market for the service of a technology that moves containers at greater speed than container ships, where customers are willing to pay a premium transportation tariff. Such an as yet untapped market likely exists between large coastal cities where railway service is out of the question, requiring an alternative technology such as a mega-size wing-in-ground (W.I.G.) effect plane or a mega-size plane capable of achieving up to 3,000-m or 10,000-feet altitude. Such planes would exceed the weight limits of commercial airports and require designated seaplane runways.

While planes of below 1,200-tons laden weight could use hydrofoils to accelerate to lift-off speed, rail runways would be required for heavier planes. Triple hull ground effect planes could use Gunter Jorg tandem wing technology between the hulls and Hanno Fischer triangular seabird wings outside of the hulls. Stepped wing design may be able to carry the weight of a mega-size container plane that flies at up to 3,000-m elevation. Autonomous control would reduce crew costs in the operation of long-distance container planes.  

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