Transportation Update: A Return to the Days of Sailing Ships the High-Tech Way

The Wind Challenger Project will be bringing sailing ships to a port near you in the very near future. The earliest date for the first deployment may be 2016.

What’s this technology all about?

  1. A return to sails on ships, but not the canvas ones of old.
  2. The use of up-to-the-minute satellite and radar tracking of weather to optimize wind use during trips.
  3. Rethinking navigation routes to reflect optimal use of wind and weather conditions.

A New Type of Sail

Ships will be outfitted with multiple 20-meter wide (65.6 feet), 50-meter high (164 feet) telescoping sails made from aluminum or fibre-reinforced curved plastic. The material of each sail is hollow in the centre to expand and contract as weather and wind conditions change.

A computer control system will position each sail to take advantage of maximum wind force. In simulation and wind tunnel experiments on models, the sails work effectively even in heavy cross winds. When in port the sails will collapse. At sea the sails can be partially to fully deployed based on prevailing wind and weather conditions.

Outfitting a bulk carrier with as many 9 rigid, telescoping sails, may bring sailing ships back into vogue in the 21st century. Source: Oshima Shipbuilding Co., Ltd.

Weather and Wind Tracking Technology

The control system will use weather forecasting live feeds, networked maritime navigation information from other ships at sea, on-board wind measurement including both direction and speed to optimize sail usage. Individual sail wind analysis will be combined with wind-flow analysis for the multiple sail array to ensure that all sails gain optimum value from prevailing winds.

Navigation Routes Redefined by Wind and Weather

Currently ships at sea seek the shortest distance routes to get from one port to another. Wind is not a factor in defining these routes. But that would change if merchant and cruise vessels were outfitted with these high-tech sails. Each sail equipped ship would be equipped with ocean wind forecasting technology for plotting an optimal course.

Measurable Benefits

  1. Ships deployed with these sails wil use 30% less fuel in trans-ocean voyages.
  2. Less fuel means reductions in CO2 emissions by as much as 33%.
  3. With optimum routing of vessels ships will maintain on-schedule deliver at a lower cost to operators.

Current model tests are built to scale to a size suitable for large merchant ships. The next step is to build a half-scale model for testing at sea before full-scale manufacturing and first sea trials on a 180,000-ton bulk carrier outfitted with 9 sails as early as 2016. Wind Challenger is a project headed up by researchers at University of Tokyo along with a number of ship builders and vessel and fleet operators.

Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...