It will be quite a sight that will greet those sailing between Bordeaux and Bristol this autumn: the imposing 127 metre long Airbus ship transporting the wings of the A380 is towed by a kite! More specifically, a flying wing.
This is the first trial run of the flexible polyester and carbon fibre structure christened SeaWing. Flying at the end of 400 metre long cable, it should enable trading vessels to reduce their fuel consumption by 20%, and therefore reduce gas emissions by the same amount. A crucial financial gain, but also an ecological gain for an industry that generates around 4% of all CO2 emissions.
The idea for an oversized kitesurfing sail to tow ships weighing several tonnes first germinated in the minds of employees working at AirSeas, a brand new start-up created in 2016 bringing together a dozen experts from among Airbus' ranks, maritime specialists, the Norwegian LMG Marin engineering firm, and the National Higher Maritime College of Nantes.
The flexible wing currently being put through its paces is a prototype measuring 16 m², but the team is currently developing aerodynamic traction wings measuring between 500 and 1,000 m² which automatically adjust their position. It offers a system for optimising routes on the basis of meteorological and oceanographic data, which indicate the most suitable time for deploying the wing. "The captain of the ship can simply press a button to deploy the wing, which is initially folded on the bridge of the ship and subsequently hoisted up a retractable mast and then left to fly off to the end of its tether". And a simple button press is all that is needed "to make it retract entirely autonomously", explained the former Airbus strategic director.
Although SeaWing's maiden flight is scheduled for 2019, the team at AirSeas plans to go one step further and aims to equip 15% of the world's fleet of ships by 2030, and in so doing create 2,000 jobs.
Knowing that 28,000 vessels, each measuring over 100 metres in length, transport 90% of the world's freight, it is easy to see the impact that this technology might have. Given that each vessel consumes between five and 10 million Euros in fuel every year, only the most summary calculations are needed to see the difference.