Watch this cargo ship fly a giant kite to save fuel and cut emissions

Tweaking a centuries-old concept, French startup Airseas is one of many companies now harnessing the wind to clean up the global shipping industry.

A large ship sails across the ocean with a tethered, rainbow-shaped white kite flying above it
A 2,700-square-foot Seawing is shown flying above the vessel Ville de Bordeaux. A 5,400-square-foot kite is also stowed onboard. (Airseas)
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A red-and-white kite hovers 660 feet above a big blue vessel sailing across an empty, sweeping stretch of the Atlantic Ocean. The 2,700-square-foot parafoil is helping to tow the cargo ship and lessen the workload of the massive diesel engines — reducing the ship’s use of dirty fuel.

On Tuesday, Airseas shared the first footage of its Seawing towing system in action. The French startup, which was founded by former Airbus aeronautical engineers, said it successfully completed the crucial initial stages” of its transatlantic sea trials. Tests are taking place aboard the vessel Ville de Bordeaux as it carries Airbus aircraft parts between France and the United States.

Airseas estimates that its Seawing system will eventually be able to curb ships’ fuel consumption — and associated greenhouse gas emissions — by an average of 20 percent.

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We are proud to have a solution that can help ships reduce their emissions right now, and accelerate the decarbonization of the maritime sector over the coming years,” Vincent Bernatets, CEO of Airseas, said in a statement. 

Airseas’ announcement comes days before global shipping regulators are set to meet in London to discuss policies for curbing pollution and spurring adoption of zero-emissions fuels. The International Maritime Organization, a U.N. body, will hold environmental meetings next week and again in summer 2023 to negotiate a net-zero emissions target for 2050.

International shipping accounts for nearly 3 percent of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, according to the organization. That percentage is expected to climb in coming years as more ships make more voyages to transport higher volumes of T-shirts, electric cars, plastic pellets and countless other types of cargo.

Within the shipping industry, wind-blown devices are gaining ground as a way to start slashing emissions immediately from these highly polluting, diesel-guzzling cargo ships.

Nearly two dozen large commercial vessels now use some form of wind-assisted propulsion,” including kites, wings and rapidly spinning rotor sails. That number is projected to reach 50 vessels by the end of 2023, according to the International Windship Association. While that’s a relatively tiny share of the more than 100,000 merchant ships in service today, it still reflects significant growth for the emerging field.

Ville de Bordeaux joined the wind-blown fleet last December, when Airseas installed its Seawing system on the front of the 500-foot-long vessel. 

With the flip of a switch, the kite automatically unfurls and positions itself in the wind to help pull the ship forward. A pod attached to the kite’s tether gathers weather data to optimize the system’s performance. Once towing is no longer needed, the tether retracts, and the kite folds back onto the bow of the ship. The system is intended to fit onto any type of commercial vessel.

For the sea trials, Airseas deployed both a 2,700-square-foot kite and a 5,400-square-foot version. (The startup is also developing a 10,800-square-foot version of the parafoil.)

The first stages of tests successfully validated key steps, such as the automatic folding and unfolding of the kite and its performance at altitude. The processes of takeoff and landing are particularly dynamic, Bernatets told Canary Media.

We are launching a flying object from a sailing object, compensating for movement on all sides, such as waves in high seas and turbulence at low altitude,” he explained. After the flight, we have to ensure that the Seawing lands smoothly and precisely on a moving target: the ship bow, which is oscillating on waves and generating heavy turbulence and movement.”

Although the Seawing is meant to work without the crew’s intervention, a team of Airseas engineers stayed on board during the pilot runs to test the system and gather data. The group had to schedule tests within narrow windows of time to avoid interfering with Ville de Bordeaux’s busy operations. Engineers also had to create new safety processes for handling the first-of-its-kind system.

And we have to do all this in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean,” Bernatets said.

In next year’s sea trials, Airseas will test the Seawing in more varied weather conditions and fine-tune the automated system. The idea is to expand the kite’s flight envelope,” or the range of conditions in which the system can safely fly, a process Bernatets likened to testing a new aircraft. He said tests in 2023 will also confirm exactly how much the kite helps to reduce the vessel’s fuel use and associated emissions. 

Ultimately, the Seawing needs to be automated and easy to use,” he said. This is why, despite the operational constraints, it is essential that these tests happen at sea, in real-life conditions…to make the process streamlined for future users.” 

The six-year-old startup already has a major customer lined up. Japanese shipowner K Line has placed orders for five Seawing systems, with additional options to equip 46 additional vessels. The first of those kites is due to be installed this month, Bernatets said.

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Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.