Autonomous Ground Effect Vehicle Demonstrator Aims To Speed Up Maritime Shipping

Ground effect vehicles, or ekranoplans, have the advantage of being more efficient than normal aircraft and faster than boats, but so far haven’t been developed beyond experimental prototypes. Fortunately, this doesn’t stop companies from trying, which has led to a collaboration between [ThinkFlight] and [rctestflight] to create a small-scale demonstrator for the Flying Ship Company.

The Flying Ship Company wants to use unmanned electric ekranoplans as high-speed marine cargo carriers that can use existing maritime infrastructure for loading and unloading. For the scale model, [rctestflight] was responsible for the electronics and software, while [ThinkFlight] built the airframe. As with his previous ekranoplan build, [ThinkFlight] designed it in XFLR5, cut the parts from foam using a CNC hot wire cutter (which we still want a better look at), and laminated it with Kevlar for strength. One of the challenges of ground effect vehicles is that the center of pressure will shift rearward as they leave a ground effect, causing them to pitch up. To maintain control when moving into and out of ground effect, these crafts often use a large horizontal stabilizer high up on the tail, out of ground effect.

A major feature of this demonstrator is automatic altitude control using a LIDAR sensor mounted on the bottom. This was developed by [rctestflight] using a simple foam board ekranoplan and [Think Flighs]’s previous airframe, with some custom code added to ArduPilot. It works very well on smooth, calm water, but waves introduce a lot of noise into the LIDAR data. It looks like they were able to overcome this challenge, and completed several successful test flights in calm and rough conditions.

The final product looks good, flies smoothly, and is easy to control since the pilot doesn’t need to worry about pitch or throttle control. It remains to be seen if The Flying Boat will overcome the challenges required to turn it into a successful commercial craft, and we will be following the project closely.

35 thoughts on “Autonomous Ground Effect Vehicle Demonstrator Aims To Speed Up Maritime Shipping

  1. The original ekranoplan was made to fly tanks and troops over the ocean with the huge lifting capacity and the intrinsic property to fly under the radar. I’ve never seen estimates on how good the fuel economy actually was, though. Whether it makes any sense to risk crashing into a wave just to get your strawberries from New York to Portugal in less than ten hours.

    1. Putting aside that radars can be in the air and in orbit, it combines most of the downsides of air cargo with most of the downsides of ships. There is just not enough juice for the squeeze necessary to keep such a craft safely operational.

      Just like passenger rail in the middle of the US heartland, every sober analysis always concludes there is no point given what I would cost—but then a strange emotional mix of whimsical novelty and nostalgia a few years later make somebody ask the exactly same questions again.

      1. Safe operation where? Somewhere rough and awful so the WIG effect is rather disturbed will mean its harder to lift huge loads with the efficiency gains, doesn’t mean it can’t be safely operated – for one thing make it bigger and the rough seas etc cease to really matter – as the WIG effect ceiling height is seemingly very much defined by your wingspan, so you can get it well out of the danger zone by making it wider. And for another you can just fly lighter loads – so you can as conditions demand leave the WIG and fly normally, burning more fuel but its still safe operation. The big downside to such things from what I can see is that they are awkward to load and unload – container ship don’t have wings sticking out making the cranes reach further, and any size ship that fits in the berth can be serviced by the same crane – as the boats themselves don’t vary that much in width, so its sane to build a crane for the biggest ship you could possible fit even if you currently expect to service minnows – where a bigger ekranoplan has bigger wings so its even further away from the dockside all the time – about the only way ekranoplan make sense is being used like a landing craft so the cargo can be driven out of it – not efficient at all for general use, but great for shipping to random beaches, and maybe even up river.

        Up to a point of excessive over supply more railway always have a point – sure they are expensive to build (though so are roads, aircraft etc), but they are very very green, comfortable, fast (maybe even faster than flying in some cases) mass transit. So the only way they don’t work is when you need to deliver huge return on investment in a short time because the taxman won’t spend the money on it, and private investors actually want to get something back..

        1. >and private investors actually want to get something back..

          It’s curious in the sense that if you don’t count your profits, you have no information whether the project was actually worth it. Many such public works are simply very expensive boondoggles, and they run for a while until the government finally decides it’s not worth it, so they sell it. The private owners then cut costs or increase prices to a sustainable level and the customers go away, revealing the fact that it shouldn’t have been built in the first place.

          You can see this in most of the world where infrastructure like railways or phone networks, roads, etc. get privatized: the government was using other people’s money to subsidize the infrastructure for the people who wanted it. When the private owner starts asking the right price, everyone gets up in arms and blames them for being too greedy.

          1. In the case of railways (and much public infrastructure) the profit isn’t the point – the points are liberating the people by providing affordable, decent transport – which is good for the society as a whole, reducing traffic, road accidents and maintenance costs on the roads – again good for everyone, being more energy efficient – which in the modern world is becoming more and more important. Its a public service! You don’t expect your Firefighters to turn a profit, your Armed forces, Coastguard, I would say Healthcare (but the Americans seem to think profit on that one is the point)…

            Turning a profit with your energy grid, telecommunications, water supply, sewage treatment – all the elements that make for a modern connected lifestyle isn’t the point – the point to all these public services create a world in which people can thrive, so its good for everyone including the taxman’s pocket – because the people are able to work, innovate, communicate more freely ideas and products get made – and including those of poorer backgrounds means more good ideas can actually be heard, this leads to companies making profits and people getting paid, which get taxed. So these subsidies you talk of are often not really anything of the sort – they are investment in the people of the nation, who then through increased success paid the taxman back – its just not a direct pay for service model, and remember those folks that didn’t use that rail line still benefit from it – the goods they want transported cheaper, the new product they bought actually got made, the company they paid to do x is able to offer enough to bring in the expert contractor who needs to travel, because the travel is cheap so the company actually does the job better.

            Also with things like mass transit without an unlevel playing field it always works out massively cheaper – the problem is too many other transport systems are too subsided, directly or indirectly, or less regulated, etc so it doesn’t get the passenger count it should – which then means the price has to be shared through fewer people.

            ALSO people always complain when things they actually use get more expensive – doesn’t even matter if its actually still cheaper than it was a few a years ago inflation adjusted even, they complain – and if there are other options, even if they are more expensive in protest you end up seeing shifts towards that other option.

          2. Complaining that publicly run resources become profitable once privatized is changing the metric for success, and doing so ex-post.

            Take the extreme of a charity organization — they’re _losing_ money, on purpose! Imagine how much more profitably that could be run if it were privatized…

            What privitization schemes actually often show is that a government has finally stopped caring about taking care of its citizens, and would prefer to simply extract money from them.

          3. >What privitization schemes actually often show is that a government has finally stopped caring about taking care of its citizens, and would prefer to simply extract money from them.

            That’s also a possibility.

            But as I was saying, the only real way to gauge whether a service is worth the money is to see whether it can sustain itself. In other words, if it turns profit by the people who actually need the service. When you remove the profit motive, you tend to get the opposite effect where the service itself starts to balloon out of control as people demand that you build them roads to nowhere on everyone else’s expense.

            After all, like Foldi says, the services are to “create a world in which people can thrive, so its good for everyone”. More services is more good. More taxes are not so good, but for each individual expense that benefits some people in particular, the public cost is spread over the population in general, which makes it rational and profitable for people to always demand more regardless of the efficiency of rendering that service.

            >Take the extreme of a charity organization — they’re _losing_ money, on purpose!

            No they’re not. The organization always takes its cut. When they’re not taking it directly out of the money deposited in their care, they’re doing it by demanding some donations to themselves to keep paying the people so employed. It’s a total illusion that the people involved in and with these organizations, public or private, are not eating off of the cart themselves.

          4. >they are investment in the people

            Not all investments have returns, such as the ghost cities of China, and building railroads to where few people live. Of course, if you build it and keep pouring money into it, people will come, but whether that makes sense as opposed to some other investment…

            …well, that again requires you to calculate your profit margin. The trick there is that unless you actually try to put black ink under the line, you’re not demanding actual cost-effectiveness out of the whole organization. It’s only theoretical – just counting how much each of your departments succeeds in spending. They will always spend as much money as you give and then claim they could not spend any less (Parkinson’s law).

          5. You can’t gauge a wide ranging public service by if its profitable when privatised – you go doing that to the fire service, what they don’t turn up till you pay? Only save you if your on the books as insured so they will get paid? Get to put you into massive debt?

            The metric isn’t that simple either, as that fire service puts out one fire that damaged the property it started in, that is huge money saved in the neighbours not burning too, saves a vast amount of disruption to the area – so people can actually get to and from work etc making goods. The value in that service isn’t cut and dry.

            The very notion that basic services should be profitable is actually just plain stupid – if anything the basic services required for modern life should be provided to a minimum viable level free of charge, with paid upgrades for those that want and can afford the better service.

            The concept of return on investment is sound, but for a public service it isn’t easy to really put any numbers on that – you can make schools have 200x the funding they had per pupil, doesn’t actually mean those children are going to be 200x better, they might even not be any better for society in the end for having greater spending – but you can’t actually know as you don’t go round creating valid experiments for every element of public spending so you can perform the analysis to have useful data. So you have to take the approach that supplying more than what seems to be minimum is the right call – so you keep upping the amount of effort/money/time till the results cease increasing meaningfully or the tax budget is spent.

          6. Dude: “It’s curious in the sense that if you don’t count your profits, you have no information whether the project was actually worth it.”

            This is the kind of argument that is used by people who lack the wisdom it takes to attribute value to things that are difficult to measure. Is clean air valuable? Is clean water? Is leisure time? Is the overall health of a populace? These are all difficult to measure, but are essential to the health of a culture. By assigning value only to easy-to-measure things like “profit”, you go down a path that loses any sense of meaning. Not only does a singular focus on “profit” miss many things of great value, it also misses COSTS that are difficult to measure, like the long-term health effects on a population when your activities do damage to the quality of life for that population.

            I would say that profit is the universal excuse of small-minded people.

      1. The trouble is that an “ekranoplan” has to fly really low to make use of the ground effect. The original sea monster had to fly between 1 – 14 meters. Now, as far as search engines tell you, 5 meter waves are common, 8 meters are high, and sometimes – rarely – you get constructive interference between waves that makes one rise up to 20-30 meters high.Those are the so-called rogue waves.

        So there is a small chance that you fly through stormy weather and just -splat- into a wall of water at 500 kph.

    2. I don’t see how the ekranoplan can compete against the size of todays container ships at sea, but when they get to port they surely have there use. With there lifting capacity and ability to go anywhere, why not use them to unload containers from ships at anchor and deliver them direct to the intended wharehouse. Couldn’t a customs agent inspect the cargo at that site? Seems like it might help relieve some of the backlog on the coasts.

      1. How would they get there? There’s a minimum permissible flight altitude over land, and ekranoplanes generally have to fly below that. Buzzing around along the coast is sure to disturb other traffic.

        The Russians use these as emergency access planes over the arctic, where there’s vast areas of basically nothing in the way. It’s kinda like a Siberian equivalent of a swamp boat. Nothing so huge as to move a shipping container though.

    1. We already know rogue waves exist. There is about 10 of them on the worlds oceans at any given moment. But that is not the 20-30m monsters, Rogue means a wave over the significant waveheight, so it might be a 7m wave when the rest is 2-3m. But odds are a merchant ship will see atleast one 25m Rogue wave if it spends 20+ years on the oceans, and 30m waves isn’t that unlikely. So ship design specs have changed the last 25 years. In the old algorithms it simply wasn’t possible to be waves like that. Since the 1995 Draupner wave we have learned a lot, including about Rogue holes.

      1. IIRC there was one near Iceland that went so high a ship near it briefly grounded on the bottom of the relatively shallow area it was in, then the wave crashed down on the ship.

    1. Or you know.. A boat. Don’t the eight largest shipping vessels produce as much carbon emissions as every land vehicle on earth? Feels like we’re going to outlaw chicken farts or something and then turn around and continue building suicidally wasteful ways to import infinite products from overseas in an accelerating manner.

    2. In general energy efficiency its going to slaughter a hovercraft – the hovercraft always has to push down and fill its skirts to counter gravity at all speeds – where anything fixed wing aero lifted only has to deal with getting fast enough to generate the required lift – its only really pushing against its own drag in the long run (something a hovercraft also has to do – so similar forces for a similar speed), so it can get very much heavier as drag doesn’t care how heavy you are, just what your skin is shaped like and how fast you are travelling…

      However in terms of practicality a hovercraft is hard to argue with, able to traverse land easily as well, stop right next to the loading/unloading site – not got wings sticking out getting in the way, also won’t need long ‘runway’ to get up enough speed to function, it just turns on the fan, fills its skirt and its lifted ready to go. That sort of practicality is an efficiency of its own, that for me outweighs the extra energy consumption in use most of the time..

    1. Because people make words. Honestly, it’s probably because the surface that provides vertical stability happens to have a horizontal appearance. It’s kind of like how a vertical antenna produces a horizontal magnetic field – we call its polarization “vertical” because that’s how the physical implementation appears. It’s like how “semi” and “bi” can sometimes have the same meaning (semiannual vs. biennial), because one refers to a period, the other to a frequency, which are inverses. It’s like how “inflammable” is most emphatically not the opposite of “flammable”. People and words.

  2. To all the people complaining about the economic future of the company that paid for this awesome DIY model: this is Hackaday! Not Business Week or Investor’s Daily.

    For the love of everything hacky — this is a cool model with some fun autopilot functions, that were recently hacked into the Ardupilot codebase by our type of peoples, just for this project.


    There, I feel better now.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.