Boeing patented intermodal container plane

Figures from Boeing's patented intermodal container cargo plane design.

Figures from Boeing's patented intermodal container cargo plane design.

Boeing holds a little-known patent that could revolutionize the way air freight moves. In December of 2015 the company patented a design for a cargo ship that can roll over a row of 20-, 40-, or 53-foot intermodal shipping containers, lower itself, lock them into place, and then proceed down the runway and take off. The patent describes how one of Boeing’s proposed planes could carry up to 18 40-foot containers in a transverse (sideways) orientation and would still be shorter than some of the largest passenger aircraft like the Boeing 777. That way, the plane could operate in existing airports without a need for special taxi-ways and run-ways typically needed for oversized aircraft.


Boeing imagines some versions of this plane that would leave the container bottoms exposed in an unpressurized cargo space—for those designs, the plane would fly at less than 18,000 feet above sea level at a relatively slow speed around 380 mph. 

PatentYogi made a cute animation showing how the plane would work:

Today, planes use unit load devices (ULDs) which load smaller containers and pallets into their cargo holds, and the inability of cargo planes to accommodate the larger intermodal shipping containers has limited the expansion of air freight. In 2014, air freight traffic in the United States was about 12,273 million ton miles; by comparison, trucking freight was about 160 times larger.

As Boeing put it in the patent, “Cost savings from use of intermodal containers have not been realized in aircraft transportation. Standard intermodal containers proved to be too large and too heavy for modern aircraft.”

Boeing sees the intermodal container-capable plane as a new mode of moving freight that would occupy an intermediate position between slow, low-cost trains and ships and the overnight, high cost air freight mode that already exists. 

“New business strategies (e.g., just-in-time supply) and globalization of markets have created a strong demand for faster shipping,” Boeing wrote, “which often cannot be addresses by ships, trains, and/or trucks, yet demands lower costs, which cannot be realized using modern aircraft. Aircraft specifically designed to transport intermodal containers can bridge this gap and provide new transportation modality not covered by the current high and low priority options.”

Boeing’s design would allow a plane to carry much more cargo than any of the aircraft currently flying, but it would also significantly streamline the loading and unloading processes, reducing time and mistakes that can occur when freight changes modes. Boeing wants its planes to be able to pick up and drop off containers directly on the tarmac surface. The plane is not currently under development, but the patent signals that Boeing is actively exploring new ways of conceiving air freight. Last month, Boeing announced an undisclosed investment in Near Earth Autonomy, a start up working on autonomous decision-making systems for aircraft that are far more powerful than the autopilot modes already available.