Airbus is involved in many technology innovations. It has recently set the world record for the longest nonstop journey by an airplane with its solar powered Zephyr, which stayed aloft continuously for 26 days. Last year, a group of Airbus engineers formed a new company called AirSeas to develop wind power technology for ocean-going cargo ships. Airbus will now use prototype SeaWing sails on its fleet of cargo ships that deliver parts for aircraft between the company’s locations in Europe and the US.
Each SeaWing will be up to 11,000 square feet in size. Similar to the the parafoils that power kiteboarders all over the world today, they can reduce fuel costs by as much as 20% while also reducing carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur emissions from ships that operate on bunker oil — the dirtiest fuel on earth. Today there are over 28,000 large cargo ships plying ocean trade routes. The fuel for each one can cost up to $10 million a year, so a 20% reduction translates into some serious monetary savings for ship operators.
The SeaWing is attached to the bow of a ship on a 1000-foot long tether. The entire system is automated, including onboard weather sensors that tell the captain when deploying the SeaWing will be advantageous. Activating the SeaWing is as easy as touching a button. The system is designed to stow itself when no longer needed, ready for the next deployment. The goal is to install a SeaWing system on 10% of all large commercial cargo vessels by 2030. Payback on the SeaWing systems is estimated to be 5 years.
“Automatization is our key focus,” Vincent Bernatets, president of AirSeas, told France 3 last year. “[We want it to be] totally autonomous [and] prevent any involvement from the captain in the setting up or taking down.” The software onboard will “calculate the optimal route for the vessel, taking into account the wind, currents, and ocean conditions,” Bernatets added.
One upon a time, sailing ships were powered by sails. Then came the era of steam powered by coal, which gave way to diesel engines burning bunker oil. Now the world of commerce is turning to the wind once again to help get products to market at the lowest possible cost and with minimal emissions. Earlier this month, Maersk, the world’s largest shipping carrier, began experimenting with 100-foot high rotary sails to help propel one of its enormous tanker vessels.
Sometimes the past can still teach us lessons about how to create a sustainable world. Good on Airbus for investing the time and money to develop is SeaWing system. Saving 20% on fuel costs and lowering emissions by 20% are both important achievements for the world of commerce.