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Giant kites could pull cargo ships across the ocean – and slash their carbon emissions

By Mark Tutton, CNN

(CNN) — You may have seen kitesurfers in action, harnessing the power of the wind to pull them over the sea. Now imagine the same concept applied to a 1,000-square-meter kite, flying 300 meters above the water – only instead of towing a surfer across the waves, it’s helping to propel a colossal cargo ship across the ocean.

That’s the basic idea behind the Seawing, a technology being developed by French company Airseas, which it says could help cargo ships reduce their fuel consumption, and cut their carbon emissions by an average of 20%.

Two engineers at the French aerospace company Airbus came up with the idea in 2016, launching Airseas to further develop the technology. After years of research, they are currently testing the kite on a cargo ship traveling between France and the US.

Powered predominantly by fossil fuels, the shipping industry accounts for around 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the  International Maritime Organization – which is why there’s an urgent need for change, says Airseas co-founder and CEO Vincent Bernatets.

Alternative fuels, such as green ammonia, are in development, but they are expensive and Bernatets argues that it will be decades before the infrastructure is in place to deploy them at scale. “In the meantime, what can we do?” he asks. “That’s where using wind is absolutely paramount.”

While boats have been powered by wind for millennia, the Seawing uses cutting-edge technology to make it fit for the 21 st century. The kite is a parafoil, much like a kitesurfer’s, and is launched via a foldable mast, which is also used to retrieve the kite and stow it away when it’s not needed.

Its flight is controlled by autopilot software that operates from a box beneath the kite, which is in turn attached to the ship by a 700-meter-long cable that provides power and sends data to and from the vessel.

A smaller version of the Seawing being tested on a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Courtesy Airseas.

“What differentiates it from other wind solutions,” says Bernatets, “is that the wing is not just pulled by the wind and countered by the ship.” Instead, it flies in figure-of-eight loops, which multiply the pulling effect of the airflow to give what he calls “crazy power.”

“Plus, we fetch the wind 300 meters above the sea surface, where it’s 50% more powerful,” adds Bernatets. The combination “explains why the power is tremendous for a system that is very compact, simple on the bow of the ship, and can be retrofitted on any ship, not just new ships,” he says.

Taking flight

For more than a year, a 250-square-meter version of the Seawing has been tested on a cargo ship chartered by Airbus (which owns a minority stake in Airseas), sailing across the Atlantic. Bernatets says the Airseas team has deployed, launched and flown the kite, and this May, the company announced that the kite had successfully towed the ship. In December, it will begin testing its “dynamic” figure-of-eight flights.

The company has received €2.5 million ($2.7 million) in funding from the EU, and says it already has orders from Airbus and Japanese shipping company “ K” Line . It hopes to have the technology fully operational by the end of 2025.

Dr. Richard Pemberton, a lecturer in Mechanical and Marine Engineering Design at the University of Plymouth, in the UK, believes that “there’s an absolutely no question that it’s technically possible” for the technology to work. He points out that German company SkySails developed and tested a similar kite-based propulsion system for ships more than a decade ago. (SkySails’ parent company recently sold its marine research division to a consortium from the shipping industry.)

“The issue with any wind-assisted shipping, it really comes down to which way is the wind blowing, and where do you want to go?” Pemberton says. “If the wind is directly on your nose, and that’s the direction you want to go, there isn’t a wind system out there that that works well enough for that.”

The Seawing can’t be used when sailing directly into the wind, and to function it needs there to be at least some wind blowing, but Bernatets says it could offer enormous benefits on cross-Pacific and Atlantic routes and any north-south routes — cutting fuel use by 20% for “70 to 80% of the world’s shipping trade.”

Gaining acceptance

Pemberton believes that the biggest challenge is for the technology to gain acceptance in the industry. “I’m 100% (sure) it would reduce emissions pretty significantly, but will it get widespread adoption?” he says.

When it comes to industry acceptance, cost is critical and the price of oil has a big influence. “If you look back over history, whenever the oil price goes up, there is always an interest in wind-assisted shipping,” Pemberton says.

Bernatets agrees that rising fuel prices provide an incentive for ship owners to install the Seawing. Although he wouldn’t reveal the cost of installing the technology, he says it will generally take two to five years for a customer to make back the cost in fuel savings. He adds that savings will become more pronounced as ships transition to green fuels, which are more expensive than fossil fuels and take up more space, because they are less energy dense.

“It’s also a huge enabler for future green fuels,” argues Bernatets. “We allow green fuels to be introduced sooner, both because we save some of the cost, making them more competitive, but also because we reduce the amount of green fuel needed on a ship — which today is a main hurdle, because when you have larger tanks, you can carry less load.”

For Bernatets, that’s all part of his team’s mission. “The fact that we want to contribute to reducing the environmental footprint of shipping, it’s the reason why we’re here — it drives our energy to the next level,” he says.

“We are absolutely convinced that wind is really the next big thing that will radically change and maybe revolutionize shipping.”

The-CNN-Wire ™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

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Giant Kite Will Pull a Ship Across the Ocean Next Month

A boat being propelled by the wind may sound familiar, but next month's test could help the shipping industry in its quest to clean up carbon emissions..

Starting in January, a huge boat will attach itself to an enormous kite in a first-of-its-kind test to try and alleviate harmful carbon emissions from toting stuff to and fro across the high seas.

Emissions from shipping are a huge problem . About 80% of all the world’s goods are transported on around 50,000 ships, which use a particularly dirty fuel known as “bunker fuel.” It’s estimated that this cheap fuel is responsible for more than 2% of global carbon emissions, and between 10% to 15% of the world’s sulfur oxide and nitrous oxide emissions, both major public health menaces.

Enter the humble kite. The parafoil kite that will be used is made by a company called Airseas . It   measures around 5,380 square feet (500 square meters) and will be attached to a ship 505 feet (154 meters ) in length called the Ville de Bordeaux. The ship is a “roll on/roll off ” vessel, which refers to the fact that these ships usually carry wheeled cargo . (The shorthand term for this type of ship is, incredibly, a “Ro-Ro. ”) This particular boat carries airplane parts between France and the U.S. The ship will test out the sail—er, sorry, kite — technology for six months before being used for its regular route.

Airseas said it   “was founded out of the need to act urgently for our planet and climate” and is “committed to provide all ships with the means to harness free and unlimited wind energy.” That sounds an awful lot like a fancy way of saying “sailing,” which, in case you were unaware, is something we used to use a lot back in ye olden days to get our stuff around.

It’s important to note that unlike the cargo sailing ships of old that relied on their big sails, the Airseas kite isn’t meant to be the sole source of power for ships. T he Ville de Bordeaux will still use its engine. B ut the kite, which Airseas calls a Seawing, is meant to reduce fuel use on the journey .

Airseas has promised a super-sized version of the Seawing that measures 3, 280 square feet (1,000 square meters) and flies 984 feet (300 meters) above the boat on a figure-8 track, has the potential to reduce emissions on shipping trips by up to 20%. Computer technology helps the kite move around to maximize the carbon-free wind energy being used to propel the ship.

What’s more, the company says   the installation process is pretty easy. Y ou basically mount the kite to the ship’s deck, where it can pop out into the air with the touch of a button. The company says the kite kit can be retrofitted to basically any type of s hip type.

A 20% cut to emissions might sound small, but the shipping industry has been really struggling to figure out how to clean up its act. Some of the alternative fuels that the industry has developed that are intended to lower emissions have raised new environmental questions. Shipping products for just four companies alone —Amazon, Walmart, Target, and IKEA—accounted for 20 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent over the past two years being dumped into the atmosphere . Emissions could rise even more sharply in the coming decades ; some analyses predict that cargo volumes could grow by as much as 130% by 2050 as online shopping becomes more and more popular.

Simply buying less stuff might be one of the best options, but obviously that’s a lot harder on a larger scale than attaching an enormous kite to a boat. In lieu of larger-scale solutions, if that big kite is going to help cut emissions, even just a little, fly away, sailors.

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