Automate the Freight: Drones Across the Sea

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When you think about which of the many technological advances of the 20th century had the most impact on the global economy, which one would you rank as the most important? Would it be the space program, which gave rise to advances in everything from communications satellites to advanced composite materials? Or would it be the related aerospace industry, which stitched the world together so tightly that you can be almost anywhere on the planet within 24 hours? Or perhaps it’s the Internet, the global platform for buying almost anything from almost anyone.

Those are all important, but for the most economically impactful technology of the 20th century, I’d posit that the lowly shipping container and the containerized cargo industry that grew around it win, hands down.

How could an almost technology-free steel box compete with the bells and whistles of spacecraft, jet airliners, and a global network of computers? When you think about it, moving goods from point A to point B is one of the key tasks in a global economy. And when your globe’s surface is 70% water, moving goods by ship is something that you need to be really good at. Until the mid-1950s, almost every ship was loaded by hand, with boxes and crates winched from dockside up into holds, where it was arranged by stevedores who as often as not helped themselves to whatever they wanted. Ships took weeks to load, cargoes were relatively small, and shipping was expensive.

By Photocapy (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The standardized intermodal shipping container changed all that — cargo was now fairly secure and handled in bulk by cranes. Ships could be loaded and unloaded quickly, turning weeks dockside to hours. Ships have become enormous as a result, and the reason you can order a widget on Ali Express or eBay and have it show up pretty quickly is because it got crammed into a container in China and crossed an ocean along with thousands of other of these lowly steel boxes, each full of something someone is convinced they want.

Land, Air, and Sea

In my earlier article about automating freight, I focused mainly on land-based, long-haul freight shipped by driverless trucks. But I also touched on automating the ships that ply our oceans. Most container ships these days have barely a dozen crewmembers aboard. Technology has automated away most of the jobs on a ship, and little stands in the way of complete automation.

I have little doubt that day will come, but there’s a problem with this mode of freight: ships are slow. The modern container fleet averages about 15 knots, meaning that a crossing of the Pacific can take something like three weeks. That’s an amazingly short trip compared to the middle of the last century, but it might be too long for some kinds of shipments — produce, for instance. Yes, you can ship across the ocean by standard air freight, but at a high premium compared to surface shipping.

Could there be another way? San Jose, CA-based startup Natilus thinks so, and they’re working on autonomous freight aircraft to ply the same routes that container ships currently dominate. They have ambitious plans: 200-foot long UAVs that will tote 100 tons of freight across the Pacific in 30 hours or less. The company and the concept appear to be in their infancies now, but they plan a test of a 30-foot scale model of their freighter this summer in San Francisco.

But in this day and age of self-crashing cars and fears of drone shootdowns, what makes Natilus think they’ll be allowed to fly a drone the size of a Boeing 777 above population centers? Here’s the clever bit: they won’t. Natilus intends to fly their drones completely over the ocean. What’s more, the drones won’t even use airports; they’ll be seaplanes, and will land, unload, load, and take off at or near seaports. There’s obviously going to be an efficiency hit compared to container ships, since cargo will need to be handled more than once. But if Natilus figures out how to leverage the venerable 20-foot shipping container format, my guess is the loss of efficiency will be more than covered by a 2000% faster transit time.

Obviously, Natilus and its eventual competitors have a huge number of problems to solve. Surprisingly, I think the drone part of the equation isn’t one of them — we’ve already got a pretty good idea how to make big UAVs and fly them safely over land. I think the problems lie more with the infrastructure that’ll need to be in place on both ends of the journey. Seaplane landings are no trivial matter, and even without passengers to fill up the “For Discomfort” bags on a rough landing, the cargo and the plane itself will still require some pretty smooth water to use as a runway. There will also need to be automated barges to ferry cargo to and from the docks, facilities both at sea and on land to build, and a thousand regulatory minefields to cross.

As the saying goes, whatever the laws of physics don’t specifically prohibit is just an engineering problem, and in this case, I’ll bet that economic forces will overcome the technical issues and provide us with much more affordable overnight overseas deliveries. And if it happens, it’ll be due to innovative thinking and automating away the problems.