Sailing through the future fuels debate with wind technology

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At the end of May 2020, class society, ABS showed that a majority, nearly two thirds, of shipowners do not currently have a decarbonisation strategy in place

As all vessels built from 2028 – 2029 will, in theory, need to be designed to meet the IMO target of 50% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050, more tangible steps need to be taken towards decarbonisation. As if that target wasn’t challenging enough, this figure could increase to as high as an 85% reduction per vessel in real terms, when accounting for global trade growth, according to the IMO.

Decarbonisation presents one of the biggest challenges amongst the suite of medium and long-term issues facing the shipping industry. Surveying the attitudes and actions of owners and operators reveals that there is still a degree of ambiguity when it comes to what technology will make up a low carbon shipping industry. In the same survey, approximately two-thirds of owners saw hydrogen and ammonia as the most attractive long-term fuel solution, but both of these technologies require years of investment in infrastructure and scaling up of production if they are to be viable – particularly if, crucially, the hydrogen to be used is to be ‘green’ hydrogen, produced without generating extra emissions.

However, one clear option that is rapidly advancing is the evolution of modern wind technology which can act as an ally in reducing reliance on current and future fuels.

Demonstrating the pace of growth in wind, the International Windship Association has increased its membership nearly tenfold since 2014. Translating this growth into a physical presence, the EU estimates that by 2030, there will be 10,700 wind propulsion installations. Furthermore, the UK Clean Maritime Plan estimates the wind market for shipping will grow to £2bn a year by the 2050s.

Wind technology for shipping is starting to gather pace and scale, and as the clarity around decarbonisation increases, we are going to see the innovation in this sector increase. Modern ships will need a modern solution with their wind options, and the solutions provided by this growing sector must meet the criteria that owners expect. Firstly, they will need to ensure solutions are safe, working seamlessly alongside the crew to ensure reliability. Secondly, they will need to ensure that wind solutions and hardware are easy to retrofit and work around existing vessel designs. Finally, they must ensure that the fuel savings are maximised, therefore generating the return on investment that owners will need.

Innovation is vital in fulfilling these criteria. At Airseas, an important step in our innovation journey has been learning from other sectors, and specifically aerospace.

The maritime industry has already drawn inspiration for the aerospace industry in the development of safety protocols; a smart move, as the aerospace industry has spent the past half-century developing the most advanced automation software of any sector. There is real potential to apply the technology seen on the flight deck to a kite and ship’s bridge, and this is something Airseas is looking to harness. Through our heritage from global aerospace pioneer, Airbus, we are merging aeronautics with marine engineering.

The leap from aerospace to shipping is occurring through Airseas. The wind solution being developed by Airseas is a 1000m2 kite supported by advanced flight control programmes, that when deployed will fly at an altitude of up to 150 metres above the vessel and generate up to 100 tons of traction.

There are some obvious differences between a kite and a modern aircraft, such as the lack of passengers and the overall lower operating speeds. However, we are still dealing with the physics of the air and learning from the aerospace industry a fundamental element behind kite development.

We use the digital twin concept to the full, whereby we merge the physical hardware with an automation system that is underpinned by numerous data streams. With this concept, it is possible to solve the challenge of creating a wind solution that works to maximise the potential fuel saving for the owner and works seamlessly alongside the crew and reinforcing safety on-board.

There are two distinct digital twin applications with the Airseas kite. The first takes into account inbound meteorological, navigational and seascape data from existing bridge systems along with sensor data. From analysing this data, informed recommendations can be made to the crew about the optimum time to deploy the kite, with the final decision being made by the bridge crew and captain.

After the kite has been deployed, sensors contained in a pod mounted on the kite detect minute changes in air pressure, wind speed or direction, resulting in the kite automatically making micro-adjustments in its profile within a 300-millisecond response time. As well as optimising the operation of the kite to maximise fuel-saving, this increases safety. Through its autonomous operation, human input is minimised, reducing the risk of damage caused by human error.

This digital twinning model used also supports system safety by validating the data gathered in real-time use against virtual models and simulations of the system. If there is no synchronisation between the data in the virtual and real-time model, then something is potentially wrong, and the crew is alerted.

The second digital twin takes the automation software and by integrating it with routing and navigation software, it will recommend a route to the captain that would result in the optimum use of the kite to maximise the fuel savings. Although this is highly dependent on ship type and load, the algorithm will allow it to work well with a wide variety of ships and cargos.

As the momentum behind the decarbonisation plans for shipping builds and as clarity develops around the specific goals and challenges, we are seeing a wind sector make promising steps in the development of wind propulsion technology. Shipping sits on a burning pedestal with the status quo for fossil fuels, while we see wind as a constant feature for the future of shipping. It presents a fuel agnostic and renewable option for owners, so it has a lot of potential. Regardless of what alternative fuels owners and operators select to use in the future, wind propulsion can consistently and safely reduce the amount of it that owners and charterers will need to procure.

To help build this potential, we still need to encourage an attitude change in the modern shipping industry that wind is a modern solution for shipping that brings the energy-saving benefits that owners expect. With Airseas kite development and its aeronautical heritage, we are harnessing the knowledge of two sectors that we think will help achieve a wholescale attitude change towards wind in shipping.

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