To decarbonize, freighters rely on … sailing

The process is old like the world of navigation, but complex like the technology of an airplane. By installing sails, a kind of giant paraglider, at the front of cargo ships, the Airseas company wants to revolutionize the maritime transport sector. After tests in Morbihan in March, the system has just been tested for a month off the French Mediterranean coast, on a large barge.

“The tests are very convincing and, from the end of the year, a ship will be equipped for a first transatlantic crossing”, promises Vincent Bernatets, co-founder and CEO of this Airbus-based company, created in 2016, which today has around thirty employees. The sail, called “SeaWing”, with a surface area of ​​250 to 500 m2, is installed on a crane fixed to the prow of the buildings. It benefits from dynamic flight capacities, evolving between 150 and 300 meters of altitude, which give it a pulling power of up to 100 tons.

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SeaWing can thus pull vessels of over 200,000 tonnes and over 300 meters in length. “These first sea trials obviously consisted in dealing with wind and wave conditions, but above all in optimizing the sail’s deployment and return system, and its robustness”, says Mr Bernatets. Covered with sensors and strands – these threads which hold, for example, kitesurfing and paragliding sails – these sails are manufactured by the company Nervures, located in the Hautes-Pyrénées.

Public support

Himself from the world of aeronautics, the leader insists on “Technology transfer. Aerodynamics is the core business of Airbus combined with ocean racing technologies ”. As proof, seven patents have been filed for the overall, fully automated installation on freighters, which would only require half a day of training for the crews.

The long-term objective is to equip 15% of the global commercial fleet, i.e. an annual reduction of more than 40 million tonnes of CO2

A Japanese shipowner, K Line, has already ordered around fifty sails to equip its fleet, and the “Cycle route” would be expanding globally. “It is absurd that we have abandoned the transport by sail, but the maritime sector has always been very conservative, explains Stéphanie Lesage, in charge of institutional and public relations at Airseas. The stakes are high, and the crisis due to Covid-19 has caused a magnifying effect on soft modes of transport and, of course, on C0 emissions.2. “Maritime transport represents 13% of these emissions at European level”, according to Mme The wise man.

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