On the outside, container ships have changed little over the years. New designs are typically meant to increase the effectiveness of these giant vessels in one way or another, with most of the media attention garnered by ships that are extremely large. These huge container-carriers might not be more efficient than smaller ships, but they’re able to carry more cargo, making up for the higher cost of fuel for each trip.
Most innovations in the field have been related to hull design, with different materials and technologies used to create hulls that are lighter or cause less drag as they cut through the water. But while these new designs have increased efficiency, no one would call them ‘game-changing’ innovations.
A totally new design
Among the more subtle developments typical in the industry, there have been some radically different designs on occasion. They haven’t been taken seriously, though, because they’ve been impractical due to lack of seaworthiness or the capacity to be useful as container carriers. Most of these vessels never make it past the prototype stage.
This could be changing. A new design by a Norwegian company, Viking Shiptech, is radical, but early patent applications and blueprints suggest that it is both highly seaworthy and will have the necessary capacity to actually be a useful option for cargo companies.
At least on paper, the Viking Shiptech blueprint achieves the Grand Slam of shipping: higher speeds, competitive capacity, low operating costs and seaworthiness. Speed is the main goal behind this new design, and Shiptech uses new technology along with a radically different multi-hull approach to reach speeds that it says will change the ocean-going cargo industry forever.
With the new technology powering the vessel, the company claims that shipping times will decrease dramatically, allowing ship-based cargo companies to compete with airborne cargo companies in terms of delivery time. And thanks to the new Viking vessel’s efficiency, the cost of shipping will be much lower than the air cargo option.
How is the company planning to deliver on such bold promises? This new design, incredibly different from anything currently seen sailing the world’s shipping lanes, will use air to support the multiple hulls and ‘lubricate’ them so there is less friction while sailing. The hulls also have a planing design, so they rise out of the water instead of cutting through it like normal hulls.
Industry insiders have taken notice of Shiptech’s work to maximise the ship’s speed. The ship will be able to travel at a speed of 80 knots, which is extremely fast for a cargo vessel. In terms of common land-based speed measurements, that would be approximately 90 miles, or 144 kilometres, per hour.
The Shiptech blueprint is also getting attention because of its potential capacity. Unlike with most new ship ideas, doomed to impracticality because they can only carry a relatively small number of containers, Shiptech claims that its ship will be able to compete with some of the largest ships on earth, carrying 16,500 TEUs (the equivalent of 16,500 twenty-foot shipping containers).
A seaworthy vessel
The most important feature of the Viking ship lies under the water. The design utilises SWATH technology, which stands for ‘small-waterplane-area twin hull’ — although in this case the blueprint actually features four planing hulls. These four hulls are connected to the main body, giving the appearance of a pontoon boat or catamaran. In rough seas, the ship can operate in SWATH mode: the lower hulls actually move below the surface, so they’re not affected by the wave action. Hypothetically, this will make the ship as stable as a boat with a traditional hull design.
The SWATH element is what makes the Viking Shiptech design more seaworthy than other cutting-edge prototypes. Smaller ships have already successfully used a SWATH design to increase their steadiness in rough water.
The right size to fit the modern shipping industry
In another unique move, Viking Shiptech is starting with a blueprint for a full-size ship. Most radically different designs begin with small prototypes. The problem, though, is that these smaller models cannot be scaled easily, and they end up not being practical because a large version that can carry a significant amount of cargo cannot be produced. Shiptech’s prototype will be large enough that it won’t need to be scaled at all — 16,500 TEUs is an impressive capacity, even for a cargo vessel with a traditional design.
The patent is still pending, though, and getting it approved will be the first step of many for Shiptech. As with any radically different design, the industry will be watching closely for any sign that the new ship won’t live up to its hype. Even if the design proves seaworthy, there may be issues with controlling such a large vessel at high speeds. Because of the combination of size and speed, there are a lot of unknown variables and issues that may not become evident until the prototype is tested in actual ocean conditions with a full load of containers.
Even with the uncertainty, the Shiptech boat is an exciting new development in the cargo shipping industry. But while it might turn out to be a game-changing design, it will likely be a long time before the first of Viking Shiptech’s vessels gets fully loaded with containers and takes to the high seas. If that first vessel is successful, though? The shipping industry will never be the same.
Image: Andi Graf