The idea of using sails and kites is not totally new. Around the turn of the millennium, the Hamburg-based company SkySails was already experimenting with a fully automated towing kite propulsion system which should act as a support to the motors of cargo ships and large yachts. These systems also had the goal of making the ships more profitable and environment-friendly. During the maiden voyage in 2008, the kites were extensively tested on a route of almost twelve thousand nautical miles. Although the effects were not as far-reaching as expected, the company was satisfied with the trial runs. Unfortunately, the approaching global economic crisis and the consequent slump in fuel prices resulted in the promising project being put on ice.
Airbus has plans to power its large cargo ships on the high seas with the aid of giant stunt kites. AirSeas, a subsidiary of the European aircraft manufacturer, has developed a wind propulsion system for its own fleet – Airbus operates four freighters which, beside Europe, transport aircraft parts to plants in Mobile, USA as well as Tianjin, China. According to the manufacturer, the kites, which are up to 1,000 square meters large, will provide around 20 percent of the required propulsion energy and reduce fuel consumption by the same amount.
In fall 2018, the first kite was ordered and christened with the name “SeaWing”. Its use will be partially automated: When there is no wind, the sail remains folded up on the bow of the freighter. When the meteorological station reports a sufficiently strong supply of wind, the captain simply activates the sail with the push of a button. The kite flies at an altitude between 200 and 300 meters, where the currents of the wind are considered to be the most favorable. Connected to the ship by a light, yet extremely tearproof rope, the kite puts the force of the wind to maximum use. As soon as the wind subsides, the kite sail is automatically lowered.