Water freight for the future
By focusing on the development of smaller water-freight logistics solutions, technological developments, which are currently not suitable for the large ocean-going container vessels, can be looked at in more detail. A number of shipbuilders are attempting to develop the world’s first zero emission, autonomous container feeder vessel. These fully-electric and, in some cases, autonomous container vessels have been estimated to reduce diesel-powered truck transport by around 40,000 journeys per year, per vessel.
In fact, autonomous vessels are already in operation in the Middle East, with Dubai-based DP World launching its first autonomous security boats earlier this year. It is understood these fully autonomous surveillance boats can be remotely controlled from a central control room, allowing them to function day or night. With container terminals and portside equipment already becoming highly automated, it is not an inconceivable step to see larger-scale, automated cargo vessels come into operation within the next decade.
With autonomous mooring and berthing systems already in operation in a number of facilities, the berthing of these vessels in a cargo terminal should prove to be technically feasible. These systems, combined with autonomous cargo handling, could allow the entire cargo handling operation to be undertaken automatically, with limited human intervention. Alongside the efficiencies gained through fully autonomous cargo handling operation, the absence of human operators significantly improves safety and reduces the chance of error.
However, in order to facilitate a seamless transfer system for goods, careful planning and design is essential to control the interface between a port and a vessel. From an engineering standpoint, one possible solution may be dedicated infrastructure design. Rather than providing a length of quay that permits berthing along its entire length, the design would be for a particular vessel type. This may be a new concept for container terminals, which are designed for a range of vessels, owned and operated by parties that do not necessarily have an interest in a particular port, but is not unheard of in other parts of the maritime sector. An example of this can be seen if we look at ferry terminals, where the vessel owners and operators are often the terminal owners and operators, thus allowing infrastructure and vessels to be designed to perfectly complement each other. The ferry operator Scandlines, in Denmark and Germany, is a great illustration of this, developing port infrastructure that facilitates automated mooring and berthing, and therefore extremely rapid loading and discharging of Roll-on/Roll-off (RoRo) traffic and overall turnaround time.
Efficient and highly-integrated vessel and terminal operations are not just a possibility, they are a probability. With major operators expanding capabilities in the wider logistics sector, including feeder services, a nod to transport modes of the past could spark a new era of fully-integrated, autonomous transshipment services and vessels operating before the turn of the next decade.
As city centres and roads grow more congested, resulting in current modes of freight transportation grinding to a literal halt, utilizing the rivers, canals, and coastal routes at our disposal could offer a compelling solution to transport goods efficiently, autonomously, and intelligently. In turn, this could ultimately help society navigate the future and leave logistical and environmental challenges in our wake.