Freight Transport of the Future: Taking to the Air and to the Tube

Three forward-thinking companies are trying to solve the impending traffic collapse in many urban centers with futuristic transportation concepts. Like Jules Verne, they are even taking to the air and underground. But this is not science fiction.

Volodrone, Cargo Sous Terrain and Hyperloop are three options against the traffic collapse in urban areas. Photo: Volocopter/DB Schenker, CST, Hyperloop

Jules Verne was often far ahead of his time with his travel stories. Much of what the French writer dreamed up in the 19th century in his novels later became reality. The three visionary transportation projects of today, which at first glance sound like pure utopia, could also have been penned by him. But the creators of Volodrone, Cargo Sous Terrain, and Hyperloop are going one step further by eagerly working on their implementation.

Volodrone – The heavy duty electric drone

The Volodrone can carry freight weighing up to 200 kilograms. Photo: Volocopter/DB Schenker

The Volodrone caused a sensation when it took to the skies and completed its maiden flight in front of an audience at the ITS World Congress in Hamburg in 2021. Behind the Volodrone is a heavy-duty electric drone that can carry unmanned ISO pallets weighing up to 200 kilograms over a maximum of 40 kilometers. The cargo drone has 18 rotors, is 9.15 meters in diameter and 2.15 meters high. Its maximum takeoff weight is 600 kilos. The first public test flight in the port of the Hanseatic city lasted around three minutes and reached a flight altitude of 22 meters.

In order to seamlessly integrate the aircraft with the logistics chain, the engineers at Volocopter GmbH, headquartered in Bruchsal, Germany, equipped the cargo drone with a loading box between the loading frame. Cargo the size of a euro pallet can be stowed inside. The destination could be a distribution center on the outskirts of town, from where small electric vehicles or cargo bikes take over the goods after landing and take them to the final recipient without emissions.

CST goes underground

The Swiss “Cargo Sous Terrain” (CST) project is pursuing a completely different approach for the alternative transport of goods: CST does not take to the air, but goes underground. The underground cargo railroad is scheduled for completion in 2045 and will be approximately 500 kilometers long in the final expansion stage. The planned overall CST network will stretch from Geneva to St. Gallen and from Basel to Lucerne. In addition, there will be a line from Bern to Thun. The total cost of construction is estimated at 30 to 35 billion euros. This will be used to dig a tunnel system about six meters in diameter at a depth of 30 to 80 meters. Designed as a three-lane system, driverless, electrically driven tunnel cars will run on their own lanes. There will be no need to lay tracks. 

The underground cargo railroad CST is scheduled for completion in 2045 and will be approximately 500 kilometers long in the final expansion stage. Photo: Cargo Sous Terrain

The transport units, with space for two euro pallets, move underground around the clock at around 30 km/h and are connected via induction loops in the ground. The trolleys will use these to charge their batteries during the journey so that they can move forward autonomously at times. A kind of underground GPS shall control the cars. There will be one lane for each direction. The central service lane is reserved for repairs, avoiding defective trolleys, or temporary goods storage.

There will be several multifunctional city hubs along the route for loading and unloading goods, where a lift will automatically bring the trolleys to the surface. Supported by IT, the goods will be automatically bundled by cargo load for fine distribution and transferred to electrically powered cargo bikes, vans, or light trucks to cover the last mile. The operating company expects that the completed CST expansion will pare down truck traffic between Geneva and St. Gallen as well as Basel and Lucerne by 40 percent.

Magnetic levitation technology going 600 km/h

If Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG (HHLA) has its way, its Hyperloop project will soon be shooting large overseas containers at 600 km/h through a vacuum tube hundreds of kilometers long at one minute intervals, using magnetic levitation technology. Similar to pneumatic tube mail, transport capsules loaded with containers will whiz smoothly through the nearly airless transport tubes at almost the speed of sound. The concrete tubes could be equipped with solar cells and supply the energy for the levitation of the arrow-shaped short trains as well as their rapid propulsion.

Similar to pneumatic tube mail, transport capsules loaded with containers will whiz smoothly through the nearly airless transport tubes at almost the speed of sound. Photo: Hyperloop

Container handling takes place in the so-called hyperport. According to calculations, 1,400 sea containers a day could leave it quickly, safely, and in an environmentally friendly manner, while just as many could arrive in a second tube. To do this, the cylindrical transport capsules have to be brought to the loading station one after the other. A crane sets the containers down in the capsules’ hold via roof hatches. The hatches close and electrical energy drives linear motors. The transport capsules shoot through the vacuum tunnel at high speed every 60 seconds. According to calculations by electrical engineers, launching the streamlined capsule in the Hyperloop uses no more electricity than switching on a light bulb.

But according to Frank Busse, Project Manager HyperPort at HHLA, the earliest that we can expect a commercially viable realization of Hyperloop routes is in 10 to 15 years. So far, there is only a virtual reality demonstrator that spectacularly shows how Hyperloop is used to handle and transport containers in seaport-hinterland traffic. After three years of intensive research and development, HHLA is now looking for potential partners to build and operate a test track. This would be realized in five years and at best be more than three kilometers long. According to HHLA, distances of at least 300 to 400 kilometers would make sense for commercial use. Ports could then be linked to other urban centers, from where trucks, freight trains, and barges take on the containers. Handling and storage capacity would increase in the port area.

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