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Innovative developments in rail and sea transport

Of Autonomous Ships, Driverless Trains and Self-Switching Railcars

Autonomous systems save time, costs and personnel – and are not strictly limited to the road. A lot is currently being written about self-driving vehicles in individual transport, but are similar developments on the horizon for air and sea freight? We’ve taken a closer look at trains without conductors, ships without a captain, and railcars that couple and navigate autonomously.

No doubt that autonomous transport has reached the logistics industry. When the topic is mentioned, many still think of the road – but rail and sea have seen equally innovative developments which will automate transport, making it independent of human control.

Rail transport gets an upgrade

A lot of effort has been made towards upgrading rail transport. To stay ahead of the competition in road transport, the freight car hire and rail logistics company VTG Rail invests in digitalization and has equipped its entire fleet with transponders via the “VTG Connect” system. This enables not just the automated tracking of each individual freight car, but also the monitoring of automatic planning, which in turn facilitates coordination with customers.

Phototubes along the tracks automatically detect information on the condition of the cars, which constitutes the basis for the automated scheduling of maintenance works. This reduces repair time and ensures that the cars can be put back into service as quickly as possible.

NGT Cargo wants more flexibility

Meanwhile, the researchers at the German Aerospace Center are planning completely driverless trains: In the scope of the Next Generation Train (NGT) project, they are developing the NGT Cargo, a fully automated freight train. Currently, the majority of freight traffic is handled by means of non-switching trains delivering large amounts of cargo from one point to the next in one long convoy.

The NGT Cargo will be a fully automated freight train

This is about to change with the NGT Cargo concept. The autonomously driving trains are assembled out of individual railcars and highly efficient power cars and automatically coupled on an as-needed basis. This way, a variety of goods can be transported quickly, flexibly and with minimal resources. The intelligent railcars are equipped with various loading concepts for different types of goods, and each car has its own electric engine, enabling the railcars to switch and drive the last few kilometers to the customer autonomously. How long it will take for this technology to be implemented is difficult to predict. However, considering the progress of digitalization and the growing trend of autonomization, it seems that there will be no way around this development in the long run.

Booking freight cars by app

With the NGT Cargo project, researchers hope to make rail transport more flexible and increase the system’s capacities. Companies who have goods to deliver will be able to book individual freight cars. The place doesn’t matter – just like in car sharing, the car doesn’t need to have a fixed location. It can be located at any time, and customers receive exact details about the status and arrival time of their cargo. Finally, the cars can drive directly into ports, transshipment stations or logistics terminals, where they can be automatically loaded and unloaded, enabling further cost savings.

If several freight cars have to take the same route, NGT researchers envision that they will be able to communicate autonomously and merge into one train. With the appropriate infrastructure, they could reach up to 400 kilometers per hour. On existing routes, trains can easily achieve speeds between 160 and 200 kilometers per hour. Monitoring is to be done for several trains at once by a conductor stationed in the control room, until each NGT Cargo reaches its destination. Once there, it will automatically connect to other means of transport which will take care of the last meters up to the consumer's door. Before this new technology becomes reality, freight cars still have countless kilometers to go – but a first step has been made.

Connecting ship and rail

The connection between autonomous rail and sea transport is currently being tested by the German research project Rang-E. According to its initiators, optimized processes and autonomous locomotives will make switching processes more efficient, simplify rail operations and avoid empty trips. Moreover, increased automation can help prevent operational disruptions: the technology is available, so the researchers say.

However, these developments are currently being hindered by train running rules and regulations, which might delay the use of autonomous vehicles in rail transport. NGT Cargo expects the first use of autonomous freight cars in 2030 at the earliest – provided that the political framework allows for it.

Autonomous ships still in their infancy

Legal issues are among the reasons why autonomous ships are still in their infancy: Although the idea for an autonomous ship was developed as early as the 1970s in Norway, current maritime law and lack of infrastructure in the ports obstruct the use of automated systems. And yet, self-driving ships promise numerous advantages, at least on paper: from more safety and lower costs to environmental benefits.

However, the autonomous large container ship remains on the distant horizon for now. Economic aspects such as liability, insurance and construction costs are still unclear. In addition, there are no laws as of yet for international maritime transport with autonomous ships. Moreover, digitally steered ships without captains may be prone to cybercrime – a challenge not only ship captains are faced with.

Nonetheless, a remote-controlled deep-sea vessel made its way on the North Sea for the first time mid last year. The unmanned offshore supply vessel Highland Chieftain was directed by means of data exchange via remote control and satellite from California. The successful experiment was a joint project of the Finnish marine technology group Wärtsilä and the American offshore oil service company Gulfmark.

Autonomous ships face serious challenges

It doesn’t work without people

Unmanned shipping would be most easy to implement in national waters, where ships can operate without lengthy international referendums. This is currently being tested in Norway: The Norwegian shipping line Wilhelmsen and the high-tech group Kongsberg have taken over the small container ship Yara Birkeland from the Norwegian chemical company Yara and are planning to let it cruise autonomously in South-Norwegian waters by 2020.

The two companies also want to design their own driverless ships with their start-up Massterly, using technology which is already being utilized by self-driving cars: Ships are “autonomized” with the help of radars, laser sensors and cameras, and their course is monitored by a control center. It won’t work completely without people, however: In case of emergencies, stationary employees can intervene and take control immediately. Whether on the roads, the seas or the rails – at some point in the not-so-far future, the trend towards digitalization, the rapid progress of technology and the drive for automation will bring forth autonomous forms of transport and revolutionize the transport and logistics industry.

No progress without courage

“The logistics industry tends to be hesitant when it comes to new innovations, but real progress can only happen when one dares to go beyond the familiar. cargo-partner makes targeted investments into selected new technologies – and we hope to inspire many imitators!” emphasizes Stefan Krauter, CEO of cargo-partner.

cargo-partner recently proved its passion for innovation with the construction of its energy-efficient, timber-based iLogistics Center near Vienna Airport. Thanks to modern technology, the warehouse is not only temperature- and humidity-controlled, but also protected from incoming dirt and dust by air locks at all truck docks. In addition to excellent insulation and floor quality, these ensure that the warehouse hall remains temperature-stable and clean. The next step is the planned installation of an automatic shuttle system for small parts containers.