A Future Transport Scenario for Ports


Published Apr 3, 2017 9:27 PM by Harry Valentine

The appearance in recent decades of new variations in transportation technology has the potential to influence the design and modification of maritime ports and terminals. Such evolving technology includes computer navigated drones capable of carrying freight over extended distances. 

Another future technology involves variations of the tube-based Hyperloop capable of carrying passengers and freight over extended distances at very high speeds. 

The development and evolution of long-distance transportation technology requires re-development of ports and terminals to provide various services such as fuel, vehicle maintenance, passenger transfer and freight transfer that sustain the commercial operation these transportation technologies.   

Automated and Remote Vehicle Control

The development of automated and drone technology not only involves airborne transportation technology, it can also involve future maritime transportation technology as well as railways that connect with ports and terminals. Automated vehicle control began inside tall buildings when the push-button elevator replaced the lift-operator. Automated vehicle control extended to some short-distance railway freight lines and operated remotely comparable to a scale-model railway layout. 

Dating back over several decades, advancing development of radio technology allowed hobbyists to fly small scale model aircraft and remotely drive small, self-powered scale model cars and scale model boats. Automated vehicle control in the form of ‘automatic pilot’ appeared in the commercial aviation sector on extended-distance flights. 

Modern telecommunications technology allows for remote monitoring of transportation vehicles from very distant locations, including remote control of large transportation vehicles from greatly extended distances. Advancing computer technology is beginning to allow various long-distance transportation vehicles to travel across oceans to connect continents. 

The combination of both human and evolving computer-based port-based traffic control and evolving automated vehicle control promises to allow for the efficient arrival and departure of multiple transportation vehicles, including of different technologies.

Future Trends at Terminals

Many cities internationally have maritime ports in close proximity to commercial airports, and the list includes Newark, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Lima, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, Seoul (Inchon), Sydney (Australia), Auckland, Wellington, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, Barcelona, Nice, Genoa, Rome, Beirut, Tel Aviv, Mombasa, Goa, Manama and Doha. Many coastal airports are served by a railway line that carries passengers from the outlying airport to the city central area. In most cases, the same railway line could also carry short trains of shipping containers given recent interest in developing container carrying aircraft.

The hybrid winged-ship technology could be developed to take-off from and land at coastal commercial airports or to operate as a seaplane that lifts off from and touches down on seaplane runways located near maritime terminals. Advancing computer traffic control could co-ordinate arrival and departures of different automated transportation technologies at the same nearby airport-maritime terminal complexes. Such co-ordination could allow for the safe scheduled arrival and departures of various intermodal transportation vehicles that interline with each other. The mix of vehicles would include trucks, trains, hyper-loop trains, container air freight, container wing-in-ground effect carriers and ships.

Linking Ports and Coastal Airports

While air freight makes up a tiny percentage of international freight transport, it serves a viable market that is willing to pay a premium tariff for faster delivery. Industry analysts suggest potential viable market segments for faster delivery of shipping containers between major cities, hence the interest in container air freight and Hyperloop container transportation. The relatively large number of conveniently located coastal airports around the world that are in close proximity to maritime ports, provides the basis of a potential market for wing-in-ground effect craft to carry containers at competitive rates, between select coastal airports.

The long-distance international carriers will invariably have to interline with local transportation carriers such as truck and railway to cover the first and last miles of the container journey. Future freight transportation technology would require that container railway and container truck transport connect between nearby airports and maritime ports. 

At some coastal locations, twin hull ferries could carry container airplanes and/or ground-effect container planes between airport and nearby maritime port to transfer containers. Such a ferry operation could be an alternative to building specialized runways at locations where such road way connection may be impractical.

Port – Airport Road Links

An interconnecting runway could connect link airport and marine port to facilitate transfer of containers between air/ground-effect transport and interlining surface transportation technologies. In several European cities, some airport runways actually cross over main motorways. In some American cities with air bases, aircraft actually taxi over short distances along road ways while in other cities, railway lines are built on road ways and traffic signals give occasional trains priority. 

There are coastal cities where it may be practical to build an interconnecting roadway or taxi runway to link maritime port and nearby airport.

A container aircraft or wing-in-ground effect container carrier could touch down on an airport runway and then proceed to the maritime intermodal container transfer terminal to transfer priority containers to interlining local service and long-distance carriers that could include Hyperloop transport. After transferring containers and undergoing inspection, maintenance and refueling, the container flight vehicles would take on new containers before proceeding to airport runways for departure to distant destinations. 

Container ports that are located near coastal airports could undergo future expansion to include future transportation technologies that would offer accelerated delivery times to a segment of the market.

Fast Container Transport

Market demand for faster international container delivery would determine the choice of technology that would link major terminals. The Hyperloop technology could be built underwater on such links such as Singapore – Hong Kong, Hong Kong – Seoul and Hong Kong – Osaka. Container air freight could initially operate between airports with runways next to the coast or between airports located near a container terminal, an example being Newark where a main north-south railway line and parallel motorway separate the maritime port from the airport. Such a location allows for easier movement of containers to/from the intermodal truck and railway transfer points.

Coastal airports with runways near the coast and short distances to main maritime ports could serve as terminals for both IMO Type ‘A’ as well as IMO Type ‘B’ wing-in-ground effect container carriers that could offer fast international travel duration while consuming less fuel than container air freight. Such vehicles could operate on trans-oceanic routes between coastal airports such as Sydney – Hong Kong, Sydney Los Angeles and Boston – Nice where automated drone versions of the technology could offer savings in transportation cost resulting from reduced fuel consumption over conventional freight aircraft.

Future Cranes

The present generation of manually operated and evolving automated port cranes can transfer containers between ship and port, ship and truck as well as ship and railway. Future container transport would likely include the combination of hyper-loop, container air freight and container wing-in-ground (WIG) effect transportation. The introduction of newer transportation technology would require modifications to ports and terminals as well as the cranes that transfer containers amongst various transportation technologies that could arrive at and depart from the peripheries of existing terminals. Future crane technology and intra-port transportation technology would need to include future container transportation modes.

An inter-terminal ferry could shuttle container aircraft and container WIG-craft between nearby coastal airports and container ports. While the design of WIG-craft could allow containers to be loaded and unloaded from above using modified dock cranes, Boeing has shown a future design of container aircraft that would load containers from below. Ferry shuttles would allow container aircraft and container WIG-vessels to transfer containers at maritime ports while arriving from and departing for their extended length journeys at nearby coastal airports. Hyperloop container carrying technology could operate between major maritime ports to interline with other container carrying technologies.

Combining Passengers and Freight

The Hyperloop transportation technology could carry both passengers and freight along several high-density transportation links that connect between terminals where maritime port and passenger airport would be within close proximity. While Hyperloop container trains would operate between designated areas of maritime ports, passenger versions would connect via underground tunnel to nearby commercial airports that would offer connections to local transportation or interlining airline connections. It may be technically possible for passenger and container Hyperloop trains to travel over extended distances as coupled trains that divide upon approach to the destination terminals.

Upon departure, the passenger section of the Hyperloop trains may proceed to the freight terminal and coupled into a single train. The travel speed between major coastal terminals would likely be competitive with that of commercial aircraft. At the freight terminals, containers would be transferred to local transportation technologies that cover ‘the last mile’ of the journey. Future ports would likely have to allow Hyperloop container transportation to interline with container air freight and also with wing-in-ground effect container transportation.  The ability to connect coastal airport runway to maritime port would enhance future intermodal container transportation.

Future Energy Storage at Ports

The lake side City of Toronto, Canada uses underwater compressed-air energy storage. During the overnight hours, air compressors pump up giant “balloons” secured to the floor of Lake Ontario. During AM and PM peak power demand periods, that stored compressed air powers turbines that drive electrical generators. The waterfront tourist district at Cape Town, South Africa, uses seawater to cool air conditioners and industrial refrigerators. Closed-loop water pipes installed on the seafloor along dockside quays can function as heat exchangers with seawater serving either as a heat sink or as a source of heat for heat pumps.

A Canadian company called Riverbank Power initiated an underwater pumped hydraulic energy storage system that involves excavating a cavern with hydraulic pumping turbines some 600-metres below water level. During overnight hours, water is pumped out of the cavern. During peak power periods, water flows down through the turbines to generate electric power. 

Future ports located within close proximity to coastal airports and waterfront tourist districts could become prime locations for ocean based energy storage technologies. For several hours each day, that energy could sustain some of the operations at both maritime port and nearby coastal airport.


Evolving new container transportation technology such as container Hyperloop transportation, container air freight and possible wing-in-ground effect container vessels would require future redevelopment of maritime container ports and wherever possible, links to nearby coastal airports.

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