Shipping: SkySails

To save on fuel costs, the global shipping industry should go fly a kite.

Between rising oil prices and ongoing concerns over climate change, there is growing pressure on the global shipping industry to cut its fuel consumption. The answer, according to the Hamburg-based engineering company SkySails, is blowin’ in the wind.

The SkySails “wind propulsion system” is essentially a gigantic parachute-shaped kite that flies ahead of the ship, between 100 and 400 metres above the sea. Made of high-strength textiles, the kite is launched off a telescoping mast with a winch, and tethered to the ship by a tear-proof synthetic cable. The ship’s crew controls the kite electronically from the bridge. Once in the air, it pulls the ship along while describing great figure eights in the sky. The company claims that these “dynamic flight manoeuvres” generate between five and 25 times as much thrust per square metre as conventional sails.

We aren’t going back to the golden age of sail, and the SkySails system won’t completely eliminate the need for conventional fuel-powered engines. The kite is designed to fly in winds between 12 and 65 km/h, and the company claims that it can reduce fuel consumption by between 10% and 35% over the course of a year. Under optimal flying conditions, it can temporarily reduce consumption by as much as 50%.

The system was first installed in 2008 on the 132-metre heavy lift carrier MS Beluga SkySails, and Cargill Ocean Transportation is installing it on a 30,000-ton charter vessel that it hopes to have operational by early 2012. According to one study, widespread implementation of the SkySails technology could save 100-million tons of carbon dioxide per year.