Google-funded startup Makani has already proven that kites have value as an energy source. Now the GE-chartered Beluga SkySails cargo vessel has shown that kites--yes, those lightweight things you fly from strings--can act as propulsion systems on ships.
The vessel, chartered by GE's Project Logistics team to carry power-generating equipment, boasts the first towing kite propulsion system for a commercial shipping vessel. The parasail-like kite attaches to the ship's bow and pulls it through the water. The SkySails system can carry a load of eight to 16 tons--a number that is expected to increase to 32 tons by 2012 as the technology matures.
SkySails can't replace traditional propulsion systems, but GE estimates that the system could cut a ship's average fuel costs by 10% to 35% each year. And reduced fuel costs lead to reduced emissions, which means that the shipping industry could one day shed its image as a CO2-spewing behemoth.
The SkySails system isn't quite ready for prime time yet. It's still in the "exploratory phase," but don't be surprised if you see kite-equipped cargo vessels powering through an ocean near you in the next few years.
[Via GE Reports]