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Lift off! Are “hydrofoil freighters” just around the corner?

Wings that glide through the water

The world of logistics is full of futuristic startups and visionary transportation concepts. In addition to economic advantages, there is always a clear focus on being climate friendly. “ARGO” is no exception, and promises to re-imagine the long-established concept of “hydrofoil boats.” Learn more about the craft’s namesake from Greek mythology and how ARGO is expected to make sea freight faster, more flexible, and more environmentally friendly.

In recent times, numerous old ideas have been technically refined. After “remaking” airships, ekranoplans, transportation via tubes, and a possible revival of sails and hypersonic aircraft, ARGO is now taking its place on the starting blocks: a specially developed hydrofoil craft designed for the fast and flexible transportation of containers. The goal is to bring urgently needed goods to the destination port in a fraction of the time, without the need to resort to air freight. The hydrogen-powered ship is the brainchild of the company Boundary Layer Technologies, located in Alameda, California.

Its namesake is the ancient “Argo,” the legendarily fast ship that Jason and his Argonauts used to steal the golden fleece in the Greek myth. As soon as 2025, the Argo’s “modern cousin” may be crossing the oceans no less speedily, while also benefiting the environment.

A wing for water?

Hydrofoil boats are watercraft that are lifted out of the water as their speed increases via dynamic lift produced by underwater foils. This simple physical effect brings the hull out of contact with the water. “Elevated” in this way, the boat floats above the water’s surface. Since only a small portion of the craft (hydrofoil, rudder, and drive) remains below the water surface, the displacement and resistance are significantly reduced. This results in higher speed with the same drive output.

This approach is not essentially new, and has been known for a long time now: Hydrofoil boats were first developed around 1900 based on earlier thought experiments. Most prominently, the Italian aviation pioneer Enrico Forlanini developed the first usable hydrofoil craft, which was built in 1906. He used it to cross Lake Maggiore, achieving a speed of 38 knots (about 70 km/h) with his propeller-driven hydrofoil boat. The Milan Linate Airport was ultimately named after him in recognition of his accomplishments.

Ready for lift off!

Reinterpretation yields a number of advantages

Today, hydrofoil boats are primarily used for passenger transportation on rivers or large lakes, such as in Russia and Eastern Europe, as well as for shuttling between the mainland and island groups. Projects for military use have also been carried out in a number of countries, but have now been largely retired. Hydrofoil craft may soon be available as a competitive alternative for transporting freight and containers, especially as feeders.

The ARGO is being designed to transport up to twenty containers (standard TEU) with a range of up to 1,500 nautical miles (over 2,700 km). The ship is driven by green hydrogen and fuel cells, with the “fuel” stored in liquid form in the two hulls. This technology should enable the transportation of cargo at a speed of 40 knots (74 km/h). That would be over twice as fast as current container ships, while also saving energy thanks to the drive technology. As another advantage, the chosen drive enables very low-emission operation.

Flexible transportation of valuable cargo

On the operational side, the manufacturer is aiming primarily at water routes within Asia. Naturally, the ARGO cannot compete with the container capacity of today’s oceangoing giants, but that has never been the goal, and this supposed deficit is also its greatest strength. ARGO’s small size and cargo capacity (roughly comparable to that of a B747-400 cargo plane) reduces the planned clearance time in the ports to just two hours rather than the usual two to three days. The small structure also offers the advantage of being able to dock practically anywhere. Low-draft ports where gigantic freighters cannot enter or small ports outside of the typical routes? No problem at all!

This opens up the option of bypassing chronically overloaded ports, making it possible to even partially compete with the transit times of air freight, coupled with cost savings of 50%. The only thing needed is a quay to dock at.

“High-flying plans” for a future stage

The extent to which ARGO will prove a useful addition to improving current sea freight feeder services will soon be seen. The first commercial routes in Southeast Asia are planned for late 2024, early 2025. The concept of avoiding expensive interruptions in the supply chain via speed and flexibility could find success in the electronics sector, in particular.

Although the ship may not yet physically exist, Boundary Layer Technologies is already thinking ahead. The company has plans in the pipeline to go beyond coastal waters in Asia and launch a trans-Pacific service. The company claims to have already signed a declaration of intent amounting to 180 million US dollars with an initial interested party, but before these plans can come to fruition, plenty of smaller ARGOs must rise up out of the ocean on their “wings.”