It is by no means an overstatement to say that life as we know it would grind to a halt without cargo ships. If any doubt remained about that fact, the last year and a half of supply chain woes put that to bed; we all now know just how much of the stuff we need — and sadly, a lot of the stuff we don’t need but still think we do — comes to us by way of one or more ocean crossings, on vessels specialized to carry everything from shipping containers to bulk liquid and solid cargo.
While the large and complex vessels that form the backbone of these globe-spanning supply chains are marvelous engineering achievements, they’re still utterly dependent on their crews to make them run efficiently. So it’s not at all surprising to learn that some shipping lines are working on ways to completely automate their cargo ships, to reduce their exposure to the need for human labor. On paper, it seems like a great idea — unless you’re a seafarer, of course. But is it a realistic scenario? Will shipping companies realize the savings that they apparently hope for by having fleets of unmanned cargo vessels plying the world’s oceans? Is this the right way to automate the freight?
YouTube does a pretty good job of making itself a target for criticism, but one thing you can say about their algorithms: when they work, they really work. Case in point, the other day I found a suggestion in my feed for a very recent video about salvaging a shipwreck. I can’t begin to guess what combination of view history and metadata Google mined to come to the conclusion that I’d be interested in this video, but they hit the nail on the head.
But more importantly, their algorithmic assessment of my interests must have been a goldmine to them — or it could have been if I didn’t have a minefield of ad blockers protecting me — because I fell down a rabbit hole that led me to a bunch of interesting videos. As it turns out, the shipwreck in that first video was of a cargo ship that was carrying thousands of brand-new automobiles, which were all destroyed in the fire and subsequent capsizing of a “roll-on/roll-off” (RORO) vessel off the coast of Georgia (the state, not the country) in 2019.
Thus began my journey into RORO vessels, on which automobiles and other bulky cargo are transported around the world. And while my personal assessment of the interests of Hackaday readers probably is not as finely tuned as Google’s algos, I figured there’s a better than decent chance that people might enjoy tagging along too.
Under the current Administration, NASA has been tasked with returning American astronauts to the Moon as quickly as possible. The Artemis program would launch a crewed mission to our nearest celestial neighbor as soon as 2024, and establish a system for sustainable exploration and habitation by 2028. It’s an extremely aggressive timeline, to put it mildly.
To have any chance of meeting these goals, NASA will have to enlist the help of not only its international partners, but private industry. There simply isn’t enough time for the agency to design, build, and test all of the hardware that will eventually be required for any sort of sustained presence on or around the Moon. By awarding a series of contracts, NASA plans to offload some of the logistical components of the Artemis program to qualified companies and agencies.
For anyone who’s been following the New Space race these last few years, it should come as no surprise to hear that SpaceX has already been awarded one of these lucrative logistics contracts. They’ve been selected as the first commercial provider for cargo deliveries to Gateway, a small space station that NASA intendeds to operate in lunar orbit. Considering SpaceX already has a contract to resupply the International Space Station, they were the ideal candidate to offer similar services for a future lunar outpost.
But that certainly doesn’t mean it will be easy. The so-called “Gateway Logistics Services” contract stipulates that providers must be able to deliver at least 3,400 kilograms (7,500 pounds) of pressurized cargo and 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of unpressurized cargo to lunar orbit. That’s beyond the capabilities of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which was only designed to service low Earth orbit.
To complete this new mission, the company is proposing a new vehicle they’re calling the Dragon XL that would ride to orbit on the Falcon Heavy booster. But even for this New Space darling, there’s not a lot of time to design, test, and build a brand-new spacecraft. To get the Dragon XL flying as quickly as possible, SpaceX is going to need to strip the craft down to the bare minimum.
Towering behemoths are prowling the docks of Auckland, New Zealand, in a neverending shuffle of shipping containers, stacking and unstacking them like so many out-sized LEGO bricks. And they’re doing it all without human guidance.
It’s hard to overstate the impact containerized cargo has had on the modern world. The ability to load and unload ships laden with containers of standardized sizes rapidly with cranes, and then being able to plunk those boxes down onto a truck chassis or railcar carrier for land transportation has been a boon to the world’s economy, and it’s one of the main reasons we can order electronic doo-dads from China and have them show up at our doors essentially for free. At least eventually.
As with anything, solving one problem often creates other problems, and containerization is no different. The advantages of being able to load and unload one container rather than separately handling the dozen or more pallets that can fit inside it are obvious. But what then does one do with a dozen enormous containers? Or hundreds of them?
That’s where these giant self-driving cranes come in, and as we’ll see in this installment of “Automate the Freight”, these autonomous stevedores are helping ports milk as much value as possible out of containerization.
Need to haul some stuff? Got nothing to haul it with? Then fashion yourself a cargo bicycle! We’ve seen cargo bikes before, but none quite like this one. Built from a German “klapprad”, [Morgan] and his father fashioned a well constructed cargo bicycle which is sure to come in handy for many years.
They started by cutting the bike in half and welding in a 1 meter long square tubing extension. The klapprad style bicycle is made from thick metal stock, making it sturdy and easy to weld. This process also make it a true “stretch” vehicle as opposed to one that replaces the front end in order to keep the handle bar assembly near the rider.
Along with some nicely done woodwork and carbon fiber, they used parts from an old mountain bike including a front fork, front bearing and handlebar, tubing from an old steel lamp, a kickstand from a postman motorcycle, and a kitchen sink to complete the build. It should handle well so long as the weight of the cargo is not heavier than the weight of the driver.
The only part of this trailer that is reused junk is the connection mechanism that lets you attach it to just about any bike. That was made (presumably in a machine shop) to act as a removable pipe clamp, making it pretty quick to swap between different bikes. It has a universal joint welded to it so that the angle of the seat post won’t affect how the trailer rides.
A goose neck keeps the trailer far enough back to avoid getting in the way of the rear wheel. The mesh basket was made from parts of an old industrial machine. The rear wheel is attached with a swing-arm that has what looks like a rubber bumper to act as a shock absorber. But if you want to make sure a big bump doesn’t send your luggage flying, [Clement] included a picture at the bottom of his post showing a much nicer spring shock on a different bike trailer.
This long bike is built for haulin’. After needing to find a truck to transport his welding equipment (ironically in order to build another bike) [Nick Johnson] decided it was time to make a two-wheeled cargo transport. He extended the frame in order to add a cradle in the front. Eventually there will be sides on that box but for now it works like a charm for transporting his groceries. With the long wheel-base this should be pretty stable as long as you balance your cargo. We’d certainly be more apt to try a ride on this rather than the double-decker death-trap from a few weeks ago.