One of the world’s leading aircraft manufacturers is considering serving a possible market niche that involves moving small batches of shipping containers internationally at high speed and premium prices. Designers at Boeing Aircraft Company recently filed patents that pertain to a heavy-lift aircraft capable of carrying 14 x 40-foot shipping containers held transversely within the aircraft fuselage.
Market for Air Freight
Early air freight involved moving priority post office mail over vast distances internationally and across oceans at greater speed than the mail ships. International air mail postage cost more than maritime mail postage, and the market expanded to include priority small parcels.
The air freight business segment of companies such as UPS and FedEx developed from the increased market demand for fast delivery of small parcels across both vast overland distances as well as trans-oceanic distances. Parcel freight destined for major metropolitan areas can be packed into shipping containers that are normally carried aboard ships.
While freight aircraft could carry small numbers of containers quickly over very vast (e.g. trans-Pacific) distances, there appears to be an emerging market to quickly carry small groups of containers across the ocean.
High-speed ferry vessels that ride on hydrofoils incur the risk of being delayed or sidetracked by weather conditions and the risk of colliding with large fish such as large sharks and whales. A high-speed maritime vessel capable of carrying containers while sailing above the water surface and above ocean waves may be an attractive alternative technology that could offer competitive transportation costs.
The Winged Container Ship
During the time when UPS and FeDEx were developing their business models to move small parcels and cargo by air freight, little was known about winged maritime vessels that flew in wing-in-ground effect mode. The world first became aware of such technology following the end of the Cold War and the economic collapse of the former Soviet Union that had developed a large wing-in-ground (W-I-G) effect vessel that ‘flew’ a few meters above the water surface of the Caspian Sea. Except that later Soviet political leadership had little interest in further developing the technology.
Boeing’s interest in a winged container carrier to fly at high elevation also creates interest in exploring a wing-in-ground effect version of the same concept that could provide service linking several major coastal airports that include Hong Kong, Inchon (Seoul), Osaka, Singapore, Sydney, Auckland, Wellington, Goa, Doha, Los Angeles, Boston, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, Tel Aviv, Nice, Barcelona, Tangiers and several others.
A larger Type B version of Boeing’s new concept could carry a greater load of containers, consume less fuel and fly up to 150 meters (500 feet) elevation over ships at sea and on approach to coastal areas.
Entrepreneurial W-I-G Development
During the years that followed the end of the cold war and declassification of Soviet military technology, researchers in Germany, Singapore, South Korea and even Australia undertook further research into wing-in-ground effect technology. The redesigned the wing and built prototypes to prove the capabilities of their versions of W-I-G technology. The Australian builder named ‘Flight-ship’ has developed a small W-I-G vessel with a reverse-delta wing and can ‘fly’ at an elevation of three meters (10 feet) above waves of four meters (13 feet) in amplitude.
A South Korean builder has developed a 50-seat W-I-G vessel dubbed ‘Wing-Ship’ with a wingspan of 25 meters (82 feet). During demonstration testing, the IMO compliant vessel was able to lift itself to an elevation of 40 percent of its wingspan or 10 meters (33 feet) above seawater.
Several prototype W-I-G vessels that have successfully flown over ocean have been classified as ‘Type A’ vessels as their maximum flight elevation is less than the wingspan measurement. By comparison, the IMO Type B classification for W-I-G vessels allows for a maximum flight elevation of 150 meters (500 feet) and a South Korean builder is currently demonstrating prototypes of their technology. However, many new concepts continually are being developed for various aspects of flight and W-I-G technology.
Container Carrying W-I-G vessel
It may be possible to the fuselage of Boeing’s concept winged container carrier to IMO structural standards and include W-I-G wings for operation between coastal airports. Several small prototype W-I-G vessels with reverse-delta wings have successfully flown including the Australian built Flightship that can fly-sail at an elevation of three meters (10 feet) above waves of four meters amplitude. Boeing’s concept container carrier could provide the precedent for a future W-I-G container carrier vessel. A container carrier W-I-G vessel with reverse delta wings could combine a 50 meter (164 feet) wingspan and a wing length of 51 meters (167 feet) that would yield a wing chord of 36 meters (118 feet).
A 36 meter (118 foot) chord could offer a cruising flight elevation of up to nine meters above the ocean, with economy elevation being two meters above calm ocean water. It could climb to 45 percent of wingspan or 22.5 meters (74 feet) elevation in W-I-G mode before using fan-wing to climb to 150 meters (500 feet) elevation over short distances as an IMO Type B W-I-G vessel.
A heavy transport W-I-G vessel could carry up to 240 tons payload of double-stacked 30 containers of eight tons each while consuming less fuel than a high-altitude container carrier. Computer assisted navigation could allow minimal crew to operate extended trans-oceanic voyages at competitive transportation costs.
A breakthrough in materials engineering has made possible small, compact externally-heated, closed cycle gas turbine engines that operate at very high internal pressure. Such engines can deliver peak efficiency over a wide range of power output while drive electrical generators aboard ships or even aboard aircraft that would both use electric motors to drive propellers.
This advancement occurs concurrently with development of fan-wing propulsion that could be applied to either aircraft or W-I-G vessels of IMO Type A, IMO Type B or IMO Type C classifications.
A container carrying W-I-G vessel of IMO Type B classification that operates between coastal airports could incorporate fan-wing technology to briefly climb to the required 150 meters elevation over short distances. Future generation closed-cycle turbines would provide the energy to drive main propulsion propellers as well as fan-wing technology built into the outer sides of the W-I-G vessel’s reverse delta wings. While a high altitude aircraft carrying 14-containers could fly at either 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) or 10,000 meters (32,000 feet), a W-I-G variant could be built to carry more containers and reduce per container transportation costs compared to the high-altitude container carrier.
When Boeing decided to research an airborne carrier of shipping containers and develop a concept-idea of such a technology, their efforts also encourages examination of a possible W-I-G version of that concept to operate between coastal airports. It would have to be built to IMO Type B performance standards with increased container carrying capacity than its high-altitude counterpart and would likely consume less fuel. There are many coastal airports around the world at a large metropolis (Hong Kong, Singapore, Osaka, Sydney, Boston, Los Angeles, Rome and Tel Aviv) or near a metropolis (Surabaya – Jakarta, Goa – Mumbai, Inchon – Seoul).
If Boeing declines to investigate a W-I-G version of their concept airborne container carrier, then a competing manufacturer could investigate the international market application and potential market for such a vehicle. There are several routes where W-I-G vessels and freight aircraft travel identical distances between coastal airports, except that the W-I-G vessel could offer fast delivery containers at lower transportation cost per container. The combining of several new transportation technologies allows researchers to develop a potentially workable concept container carrying W-I-G vessel for long-haul, trans-oceanic service between coastal airports.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.