The cargo vessel MS Beluga Skysails deploying its skysail kite. Image copyright SkySails, inc.

Kite Assisted Ships
Tech Level: 10

Using the wind for propulsion on the seas is hardly a new idea; it is in fact one of mankindís oldest ocean-going technologies. But as first steam engines, and then diesel motors and even nuclear reactors began providing sea propulsion, wind power fell to the wayside, and is used today mostly for recreational boating.

However, the recent turbulence with fuel prices have forced many shipping companies to once again look toward wind power and sails as a means of helping getting their cargo from one point on the globe to another. One of the more intriguing and successful of these innovations is the Sky Sail, which is a large, computer-controlled kite that helps to pull the ship along.

Traditional ship sails rely on surface winds, which can be notoriously unreliable. The Sky Sail operates at altitudes between 100 and 300 meters of altitude, where the winds not only blow much more steadily but with greater energy as well. The kite is fashioned very much like an oversized (160 square meters) paraglider and is made of advanced, tear-resistant fabrics. It can operate in winds up to 40 knots and just like any other kind of sail it can be used for tacking maneuvers at angles to a prevailing wind.

The sail is controlled from a single tether attached to a reinforced 15-meter high mast, and is computer controlled through numerous sub-tethers to optimize its use of wind from minute to minute.

Use of the kite is expected to cut fuel consumption by up to 20%. This, in turn, would help control future greenhouse gas emissions. The sail is meant not just for cargo ships, but also for cruise liners and trawlers.

The technology was first used on the maiden voyage of the MS Beluga SkySails, which set sail to Venezuela from Bremen on January 22, 2008 and reached the Norwegian port of Mo-I-Rana on March 13, 2008 after travelling a total of 11,952 nautical miles. Sky sails are now currently undergoing commercial trials on the cargo ships MS Beluga Skysail and MA Michael A.


Article added 8/26/09