Seeking Game Changers for International Freight


Published May 28, 2017 8:25 PM by The Maritime Executive

The development of the Hyperloop transportation concept is a game changing breakthrough in transportation that combines already proven concepts such as magnetic levitation, linear electric motors and tunnels. Such technology also provides the basis for future related transportation technology that would occupy unique new niches in the transportation market. 

That technology could include future freight aircraft and winged boats that offer faster delivery times, improved energy efficiency and competitive transportation costs. 

Competing With Maritime

At the present time, maritime transportation offers the lowest transportation cost per unit of weight and per unit of volume compared to other modes of long-distance freight transportation. The slow speed of maritime transportation has opened small market niches for various forms of faster freight transportation, such as the container freight train that undertook a return journey between China and the U.K. Air freight transport offers fast delivery time at elevated rates and air freight transport companies are viable while offering daily service between major domestic as well as international airports.

In recent months, there has even been discussion about developing a special design of aircraft capable of carrying high-priority shipping containers. Other related discussions have revolved around automated, computer controlled freight drone aircraft undertaking extended trans-oceanic journeys. 

When applied to shorter distances, the amount of fuel that commercial freight aircraft consume between runway and cruising altitude becomes a major economic factor. However, proven technology applied at airports could greatly reduce fuel consumption on that segment of the journey. The same technology applied at coastal airports could serve both high-altitude freight commercial aircraft as well as winged boats.

Mag-Lev Runways

Hyperloop proposed to include magnetic levitation and linear electric motor propulsion inside a partial vacuum tube. Extreme high-speed trains already operate between China’s largest cities using magnetic levitation and linear motors. 

A portion of that same infrastructure could be installed at airports that serve heavy freight transport aircraft, where a magnet suspended carriage would carry and accelerate an aircraft to well above its usual lift-off-speed. At coastal airports, magnetic levitation and linear motor propulsion would accelerate both freight aircraft as well as winged boats to well above lift-off speed for each technology.

Once airborne via electrical energy, each technology would consume less hydrocarbon fuel to achieve optimal elevation or altitude. For IMO Type A or IMO Type B winged boats minus landing wheels, coordination between computer controlled mag-lev technology and computer controlled winged boat navigation technology would activate. 

The winged boat would touch down on the speeding mag-lev technology that would then reduce speed and carry the winged boat to a terminal for unloading and reloading. Future mag-lev runways may first appear at coastal airports to serve aircraft and winged boats that carry high-priority containers.

Heavier Freight Aircraft

At the present time, the Russian built Antonov AN-225 at 640 tons is the heaviest freight aircraft built. Much of its power is required to accelerate along a runway to lift-off speed before climbing to its cruising altitude. Mag-lev runways could theoretically accelerate a craft weighing well in excess of 1,500 tons to well above its lift-off speed, enhancing prospects for aircraft and winged boats that offer fast transportation of high-priority containers. A winged boat built to IMO Type B requirements only has to lift to an elevation of 150 meters above water which it will also achieve above flat coastal terrain.

A 40-foot shipping container is allowed a maximum gross weight of 67,200 pound or 30.6 tons. One aircraft manufacturer’s proposed concept airborne container aircraft is intended to carry 14 40-foot containers, yielding a payload of 430 tons. 

A winged boat version could theoretically be built to carry 30 x 40-foot containers carried in double stacked configuration to yield a payload of 920 tons. While mag-lev runways at coastal airports would allow conventional freight aircraft to lift off while carrying heavier payloads, such technology would enhance the attractiveness of developing drone-type winged boats capable of carrying containers on high-priority trans-oceanic service.

Offshore Terminals

Transportation researchers who have evaluated future concepts in international freight transportation have suggested the possibility of offshore terminals for super-size container ships as well as future Hyperloop transportation. There may be scope to include operations and service for heavy freight aircraft and winged boats at such terminals, including mag-lev runways. 

In recent years, China has developed several offshore islands that have become cause of political concern. Japan (Osaka, Tokyo) and Hong Kong developed offshore airports. During the 1930’s at Cape Town, South Africa, the dredging of Table Bay provided the material that allowed for coastal land reclamation.

At the present time, many terminals have increased operation of electrically powered vehicles and machinery that includes cranes. There are new and ongoing developments in battery technology that are greatly increasing recharge life expectancy while reducing recharge duration. Battery powered ferry boats have recently entered service. 

Some future transportation terminals could likely have their own on-site power stations to sustain terminal operations as well as to recharge a variety of transportation vehicles. It is possible that future short-haul freight aircraft and short-haul winged boats could use advanced battery technology to provide short-haul propulsion.

Market Prospects

Companies such as Fed-Ex and UPS have demonstrated the existence of a market for fast freight delivery, despite the higher tariff. The recent operation of a container freight train between the U.K. and China also demonstrated the existence of a market for faster delivery times than ships, also despite higher tariff. Some airlines do carry certain varieties of freight stored in containers that are specific to particular models of aircraft. 

Designing an aircraft capable of carrying conventional 40-foot containers is a natural progression of earlier technical precedent while market precedent suggests a possible need for container air freight service.

The ability to operate a freight aircraft on alternative low-cost energy greatly enhances market prospects for container air freight services. Technical precedent also suggests that winged boats or wing-in-ground effect would be capable of efficiently carrying much heavier payload than air freight technology, offering competitive delivery times at potentially very competitive tariffs. 

Some of Hyperloop’s technology provides the basis to develop mag-lev runways for future freight aircraft and winged boats. Hyperloop’s market research not only suggests a freight market for their service, but also a market for fast freight transportation along routes where Hyperloop service is absent.


Elon Musk’s Hyperloop technology can be built between many pairs of cities and offer fast passenger transportation as well as fast delivery of freight such as containers. Precedent from Hong Kong’s municipal railway that includes tunnels built underwater provides a precedent for installation of Hyperloop technology on the relatively shallow seafloor between Singapore and Hong Kong.

Deep ocean channels could prevent installation of Hyperloop technology, thereby providing market opportunity for container air freight or container winged boat services.

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