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Are we looking at terminal infrastructure the wrong way around?

Tom Bebbington from consultancy Container Logic makes the case for flying boxes in and out of ports rather than using cranes.

Container vessels have been getting progressively larger, to the point of 23,000 teu. Whilst this may generate economies of scale for the carriers (although this is debatable), it puts a huge strain on terminals and the infrastructure that is needed to work these vessels.

Until now, as vessels have grown in size, the answer has been to build quay cranes that are ever larger, with further outreach capabilities, to cope with the increase in vessel size.

Although the quay (or berth) is a terminal’s most valuable piece of ‘equipment’, the most expensive pieces of equipment are the gantry cranes themselves. Not only have they gotten more expensive to build and maintain, but they are a huge financial risk from a terminal operator’s point of view.

If a terminal does not invest in ever larger cranes, there is the risk that they will not be able to attract the major carriers to call there. On the other hand, if they invest in these newer cranes and carriers choose to use other terminals, then this can be a financial disaster. Given the size and complexity of these machines, it’s not an easy task to move them to another terminal, assuming you own more than one terminal.

From a productivity perspective, larger vessels and cranes have not led to an increase in terminal productivity. But what if our thinking is now based too much on the past. Bigger vessels mean bigger cranes? What if there was a way to eliminate the need for quay cranes entirely?

For a long time, drones were primarily a tool for entertainment. As improvements have been made they are now being used for everything from aerial filming, search and rescue operations, parcel delivery and even human organ deliveries between hospitals. Drone technology has been steadily advancing over the last few years and will continue to do so.

Let’s suppose, for one moment, that instead of having fixed gantry cranes with a spreader to lift the containers on and off the vessel, the same task could be achieved using drones. I know that right now, this may seem a fanciful idea, but bear with me.

Clearly, drone technology in terms of the amount of weight that can be carried and battery technology, in terms of size and weight have to be vastly improved before anything like this can even be considered but there are many companies around the world that are working on these problems.

So, if you could have individual drones that are capable of lifting fully loaded containers, then you would be able to eliminate the need to invest in ever larger gantry cranes. You would also eliminate the need for trucks or straddle carriers and, potentially, RTG’s in the yard.

Vessel size would no longer make a difference because the drones could load and discharge a vessel from both the onshore and offshore sides simultaneously. There would no longer be time lost because of gantry cranes waiting for the next truck to arrive under the quay and, since the whole operation would be automated, much time would be saved in terms of lining up containers with crane and RTG spreaders. Essentially you would be able to move a box from the yard to the vessel in a single move, as opposed to the two to three moves (minimum) that are currently happening.

From a terminal operator’s perspective, if the volumes in one terminal start to fall then it is a simple task to load the drones onto a standard container vessel and then move them to another terminal, at minimal cost. That would be a massive reduction in risk for any operator of multiple terminals.

There have been semi-automated terminals around for many years, but these are based mainly on automating existing technologies, rather than developing new ones. This idea would take automation to the next level.

Whilst this would inevitably lead to a reduction in labour at terminals, which is a good thing for the operators, not so much for the labour, it would also lead to an increase in safety since there would be far fewer people on the terminal.

The risk of human error would be vastly reduced and, in the event of an accident, there is a much lower risk of fatalities or injuries.

From another safety perspective, one only has to look at the recent incident in Dubai with the vessel CMA CGM Centaurus that collided with two cranes whilst berthing. The video is well worth a watch. The full accident report was recently released and is worth a read.

So, is it time to stop thinking about building ever larger, heavier cranes and start thinking outside of the box?


  1. Interesting concept in some respects, but one of the biggest issues apparent is how to cope with rotor wash from the drone. Lifting potentially 27 tons, 100 feet or more upwards, while also keeping its weight airborne would cause considerable downwash and create powerful vortices which might effect drones operating close by. Add snow or rain into the equation and it starts looking more than a little hazardous…

  2. Had to check the date on the calendar before re-reading this article and checking it was not published before on Quora. The idea of lifting 20, 30 and 40 ton containers with drones is preposterous in the extreme – not simply because of the lifting capacity of a drone (read helicopter- pilotless or not….because we have a long way from drones by the time we get to lifting ISO containers) but imagine lifting containers with UAVs from a ship in all weathers. The risk of crosswinds would be considerable in most north European ports and the idea of ATC and separation of a horde of UAVs carrying underslung boxes is, sorry to say it, laughable.

    Many years ago (before the author was out of short pants) the port of Jeddah employed Sikorsky Skycranes to assist with container and cargo movement due to congestion but this was found to be prohibitively expensive even for an oil state with unlimited resources and with ships that had TEU capacities no bigger than three figures. Fast forward fifty years and the task of unloading a Triple E class with UAVs is mind boggling. Now, let me get back to my Dan Dare comics.

  3. Liked your article and ‘Dan Dare’ ideas Tom because there’s Dan Dare stuff out there and working today. Yes, not currently possible but that does not make it totaly impossible in the future subject to human ingenuity and ROI criteria. My thoughts also turn to military use and the current use of helicopters for cargo and equipment transfer from ship to shore. A quick net search turns up big choopers that can lift 20,000 kg. However, the rotor wash must be formidable and, as already commented, would no doubt present a significant handling problem. Keep thinking and writing Tom. I have seen some of your container handling and stowage work and it is quite brilliant.

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