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MIT in practice: eConowind deploys AI to make turbo sails even more efficient

Old-fashioned sails on modern ocean-going vessels? That's not exactly practical. Fortunately, there is a modern alternative to sailcloth: turbo sails. Based on that principle, eConowind, a company in Groningen/Zeewolde, developed the so-called VentoFoils. Seagoing ships using that solution are already saving quite a bit of fuel. And with the help of AI, even greater savings are possible.

Jean Jacques Cousteau (the French marine researcher, filmmaker and environmentalist who died in 1997) applied for a patent for turbo sails back in the 1980s. Instead of canvas sails, he used aluminum structures on his boat that at first glance looked more like chimneys than sails. Because of their shape, those structures worked like airplane wings, with the major difference being that the aerodynamics created not an upward but a forward force. To make the wings as strong as possible, an exhaust system was used to deflect additional airflow. Cousteau's boat had an engine. And so he did not use the turbo sails to sail completely downwind, but as a supplement. His goal was to save fuel.

Solution to a current problem

Now, four decades later, fuel economy within shipping is a very hot topic. Not only because of increased fuel prices, but especially because of global climate warming. Ships also need to start emitting lessCO2 as soon as possible. Currently, shipping contributes 2-3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the maritime sector is expected to grow significantly in the coming decades. Sustainability is therefore a major concern.

The development of VentoFoils

For a long time, little happened with the invention Cousteau had developed with experts. But in recent years, large ocean-going ships have been using the same principles of the French adventurer's patent, which expired in 2010. A year before that, in 2009, Guus van der Bles, in addition to his work as Director of Development at Conoship, had started a study of techniques for wind assisted ship propulsion as a part-time professor at TU Delft. In doing so, he built on Cousteau's turbo sails. In 2016, his efforts led to the founding of eConowind, the company that produces VentoFoils: 10- to 20-meter-tall turbo sails for large ocean-going vessels over 100 meters long.

Photo: eConowind


Up to 20 percent fuel savings

Frank Nieuwenhuis, CEO of eConowind: "It's a shame if seagoing ships don't make use of the free energy that rushes across their decks in the form of wind. We can quickly and easily install our VentoFoils on existing ships so that they can save fuel right away. Using the wind alone is not possible, because then you get the same problems as with traditional sailboats. If there is no wind or if the wind comes from the front, the vessel will not move forward. Too strong a wind is also not good, because then the VentoFoils are subjected to excessive forces. That is why they are collapsible. A skipper should not be bothered by all that, of course. He has to be sure that the destination can be reached on time. That is why our solution is always combined with a ship's engine. And with that, savings of up to 20 percent can be achieved in fuel consumption."

Deployment of AI

So the big challenge is to properly take into account all the conditions that can affect the VentoFoils' pulling power. This involves not only wind force and the direction from which that wind comes, but also the current on a shipping lane, how big the waves are there and how they behave relative to the ship. And to make it even more complicated, subtle adjustments in the position of the VentoFoils can make a huge difference in pulling power. So many factors to consider. Because it is very difficult for humans to oversee all that and draw the right conclusions, eConowind decided to use artificial intelligence (AI). The request to be able to make use of the MIT regulation for this was honored last year.

MIT in practice

So far, eConowind has equipped four ocean-going vessels with VentoFoils, and several more will be added later this year. Several of those ships will have sensors that will continuously measure propulsion forces. Nieuwenhuis: "The principle of AI is that it looks for its own optimum. That involves a lot of calculation and also part intelligent search. But in order to do that kind of analysis, there has to be sufficient usable data available. From the awarded MIT budget, we are now first collecting that data."


eConowind is now working with MARIN, a company that uses data science to solve problems in the maritime domain, and with De Laat Automation, a machine builder with a scientific background. "When we are a bit further along, we would also like to get in touch with commercial parties that are already a bit further along in the field of AI," Nieuwenhuis adds. "And I expect that the Netherlands AI Coalition can do something for us in that."

More information?

Visit the eConowind website. Or ask your questions to CEO Frank Nieuwenhuis.

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Published: 25/04/2023
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Published: 25/04/2023