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  • Allen Czermak

Sailing Systems Make a Comeback as Giant Kites Power Global Cargo Ships

“Let’s go fly a kite up through the atmosphere” is still a popular song even after all the years gone by since it was first introduced in the 1964 movie, Mary Poppins. We may wonder why kites have such a fascination for folks and yet kites do fascinate people young and old, big, and small and no one is too old to get enthralled with a kite flying high in the sky. Now, that's without anyone hanging on for dear life and there are several ways such as kiteboarding, hang gliding and kite surfing for people to use recreational toys to feel as though they are flying through the air.

History of the Kite

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, kites first became popular in China since the materials that kites were made of were available there. Fabrics such as silk and strong bamboo were resilient and yet lightweight. The earliest Chinese kites were shaped flat, rectangular, and not bowed. The pictures on Chinese kites were usually mythological and sometimes strings or whistles were attached making musical sounds while flying.

In 1749 in Scotland, the first known kite was developed for use for scientific purposes. Alexander Wilson made a kite train with two kites flown from the same line to use as a meteorological device for measuring temperature changes at different altitudes.

If you are fortunate enough to live near the ocean, what would happen if you noticed a barge or ship with a huge mysterious object pulling it? After reading this article you might have the answer to that huge kite leading the ship into port that you observed. Giant kites will be pulling cargo ships in the near future, and it will be happening sooner than later even though there are a few obstacles to overcome. We will explain some of the challenges that innovators are facing as they navigate the beauty and technology of giant kite energy.

Kites can be more than just recreational and so much fun to fly. Yes, the challenge is always there to go higher and higher and let the string get longer and longer even if there is that danger of getting the kite stuck in a tree. Wind power has been used forever as an energy source such as windmills but lately there is a new power in the wind for cargo ships to increase their fuel efficiency. The rising costs of fuel oil globally, heading towards $100 a barrel in the futures market has caused the reemergence of the interest in wind power.

Airseas, a French company, has developed a 1,000 square meter kite called Seawing, that can fly 300 meters or 984 feet above the sea’s edge cutting about 20% of the ship’s greenhouse gas emissions while saving fuel at the same time. Yes, sailing is going back to becoming an efficient means of seaworthy traveling not just for recreational purposes. The German company, SkySails is another company that is going to be competing in this new kite flying industry.

Seawing is expected to go into production in 2026 promising an automated version of a kite or sail that will be easy to use by a ship’s crew. The giant kite is managed by autopilot software that works from a box under the kite. The kite is attached to the ship by a 700 meter long cable which powers and sends information to and from the ship. The instruments will be mounted on the ship’s deck and all the crew will have to do is to push some buttons and the kite will be released into the sky. A pod will be affixed to the kite’s tether to find out the weather to maximize the system’s efficiency. As the need for the towing dissipates the tether pulls back and the kite will fold back into the bow of the ship. The giant kite flies in loops of a figure-of-eight instead of just pulling the ship which gives the kite 50% more power.

Of course, the cargo ships will continue to use their engines, but the kite will release some of the strain from the engines while at the same time reducing the amount of fuel needed bringing us back to the future the same way Christopher Columbus famously brought his ships to America hundreds of years ago.

To prove the popularity of this new sailing invention or adventure, companies such as “K” Line, a Japanese shipping company, have already placed their orders and are on the waiting list for Seawing kites. It is quite difficult to visualize the size of these kites because most of us conjure up a certain size image of a kite, be it a simple flying kite or a kite used for kite surfing.

The same could be said for the vastness of international cargo ships and barges that boast container upon container on their stead. How many of us have actually witnessed their sizes up close unless you live near a loading area? Even if you live near the Pacific or Atlantic coasts seeing these massive carriers from the car on the highways their size cannot be figured out. It will be cool when these massive kites become standard and we may be able to identify their country of origin or the name of the shipping company from a great distance. This will be a new visual sport for observers of planes and ships and other similar methods of transport.

A 250 square meter model of the Seawing is being tested on a cargo carrier that is being chartered by Airbus, a part owner of the kite company named Airseas and this past May this specially made huge kite has successfully towed this ship. Funding to this company comes through the European Union which has already received orders from various European and Far Eastern countries. There are certainly some glitches that still must be ironed out such as which way the wind is blowing to direct the ship in the right direction. So if there is wind blowing the sails will operate but if there is no wind there is not yet a system that will work competently. CEO and co-founder of Airseas, Vincent Bernatets claims that as long as there is some wind blowing these kites could be very beneficial to both cross Atlantic and Pacific shipping routes slashing fuel use by 20%.

Won’t it be fascinating for folks on Florida’s West coast to observe kites blowing in the wind that will be larger than football fields? Imagine a cargo ship entering Tampa Bay with a 1,000-foot kite pulling this ocean liner. A freighter's fuel usage can be down by up to 15% when using one of these humongous kites to tug a ship on the high seas.

There are approximately 10,000 merchant vessels in service today and though the industry is starting slowly to use kite wind power at least 50 of these vessels will be on the sea by the end of 2023. Even as we write, almost two dozen commercial freighters are using some forms of wind assistance propellers.

What every shipping industry CEO would be wondering is how cost effective these kites are and how long would it take to make back the cost of purchasing these kites? Richard Pemberton is a design engineer who lectures extensively in England at the University of Plymouth. He believes that the glitches in the system can be overcome, and it is more about the changing of the mindsets of the biggest in the shipping industry. Yes, these kites will reduce emissions and yes they will cut fuel cost substantially but it would take about two to five years for the customer to make back the cost of the kite compared to the fuel savings. Also, green fuels are being introduced into the industry which are more expensive than fossil fuels. Green fuels take up more space in the oil tanks which adds up to larger tanks and less room to carry loads. By adding kites to the equation, green fuel will be able to be used more readily.

Kites and boat sails are not the same, but they share characteristics in that they are both powered by the wind. Wind power has been used since ancient times and more recently in famous experiments ultimately leading to the development of the airplane. In fact, Ben Franklin developed electricity using a flat kite fitted with a silk tail and pointed wire during a thunderstorm proving scientifically that lightning was not the wrath of G D but a natural phenomenon. Franklin attached a metal key to the flying line which became electrified. Fortunately, both Franklin and his helper son came out alive from their experiment somehow avoiding being electrocuted. The outcome of Franklin's experiment was his invention of the lightning rod. Of course, natural phenomena are caused by G D but as most natural occurrences can be explained scientifically also.

Final Words

With the American government’s curtailment of many avenues to harness fuel oil we must find new ways to power long distance cargo ships carrying cargo from one country to another through our waterways. The United States has the Pacific Ocean on the West and the Atlantic on the East giving us access to many different countries where we purchase our industrial and consumer products such as China and Korea.

With fuel prices climbing, innovators must develop new ways to fuel our cargo ships and at the same time give our green citizens peace of mind. Using green fuels such as ammonia in place of traditional fossil fuels is one way to go except that these green fuels need larger tanks to hold the fuel leaving less room for cargo on board these ships. Each inch of cargo space is so important to bring our consumers the goods they want and need at the right time and for the right price.

Sailing ships have been around for hundreds of years but ships like these powered by the wind have been relics of the past. Sailing has become a recreational pastime exclusively, but the world maritime economy has begun using the power of the wind a century after this type of energy has been curtailed for commercial ships. With fuel costs topping $100 a barrel there has been a revival of enthusiasm in power from the wind. Wind is one of the greatest natural resources we have and with giant kites fuel consumption can be cut by up to 20% using giant kites to pull huge ships. This new technology uses kites rather than sails but the technology is based on the same principle. Lucky for mankind that there are always pioneers out there to discover new and better ways to make our universe a better place to live.

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