Par Mathieu By Mathieu Reguerre, Flying Components Project Manager, and Benoît Gagnaire, Co-Founder & Chief Technical Officer, Airseas
We had been given a mission like no other; taking a brand-new technology, a giant automated kite capable of towing commercial ships, developed by using cutting-edge expertise from the aeronautics sector, and applying it to the maritime world for the first time.
Our ongoing role has been to test the first Seawing system and all its components in real-life conditions on board the ro-ro vessel Ville de Bordeaux, chartered by Airseas’ launch customer: Airbus. Owned by Louis Dreyfus Armateurs, the ship transports aircraft components between Europe and the United States.
Testing a brand-new technology that had never been used in the maritime sector before was always going to bring its share of technical challenges. An additional challenge is the fact that we have to schedule our tests while respecting the operational constraints of a busy commercial ship, meaning ETAs to respect and limited windows to perform tests. And we have to do all this in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with limited facilities and a reduced technical team.
However challenging sea trials can be, they are essential. From the outset, we were confident that the technology behind Seawing was robust and reliable following extensive modelling and testing on land, but we had to perform the first full-size flights at sea, putting the system through its paces in a variety of conditions to ensure its safety and behaviour. Moreover, despite the operational constraints, testing the Seawing on the very vessel where it would be deployed helps us ensure that the system will be well adapted to the needs of the crew and company.
Key to our first successes is our “safety first” approach, with clear protocols informed by our years of experience in the aerospace industry.
Our team of engineers and mechanics is diverse, combining experienced and young workers, with backgrounds in both the maritime and the aeronautics sectors. Some of us had previously worked at Airbus for over a decade. We knew the ropes of flight testing, but this was an opportunity to put our expertise in practice in an entire new context: on a vessel navigating the Atlantic Ocean.
The first phase was to validate the complex steps related to folding and unfolding the wing, which required extensive testing of the hardware and software components to ensure that they kept working together consistently at sea. Seeing the Seawing fly at the mast for the first time was a moment of immense pride for the team, and the first of many rewards for the huge amount of work that goes into these tests. That alone validated numerous design choices that were patented for our system.
Soon after, we tackled what was arguably the most delicate part of the tests: take-off and landing. Both are highly dynamic processes. In practice, we are launching a flying object from a sailing object, compensating for movement on all sides and in all directions – such as waves in high seas and turbulences at low altitude. After the flight, we have to ensure that the Seawing lands smoothly and precisely on a moving target: the ship bow, which is oscillating on waves and generating heavy turbulence and movement. In reality, this is not dissimilar from launching a plane from an aircraft carrier!
We completed these steps successfully thanks to the dedication and ingenuity of the teams on board. For instance, the team knew that they would experience too much motion on the vertical axis to deploy the wing. A short-term solution linked to the wing was planned, but at some point, it became clear that it would not be sufficient. The team decided to develop a tailored long-term solution, based on an automatic movement of the main winch. This was supposed to be developed after a few months, but within two weeks of navigation, we quickly developed a solution that has proved its good functioning since, and helped us to widen our test window range.
To solve issues and challenges, the team has the technical support of our colleagues on shore, but needs ingenuity to tackle problems with the items and tools available on board. Adapting and modifying the system is much more challenging in the middle of the Atlantic! The team has shown great resourcefulness in solving problems to keep the trials going, and port stays are an opportunity to perform more major modifications.
Now, we are proud to say that we are succeeding in bringing this product to flight, with most of the hardest technical challenges behind us and with the conviction that we have the right product. Looking ahead, we are excited to test the system in a broader range of conditions and fine-tune the flight automation system. Like for the testing of a new aircraft, you need strict weather conditions to perform the first flight. Moving forward, we will expand the “flight envelope”, or the range of conditions in which we test the system. This is important to optimize the Seawing behaviour and performance in a variety of conditions.
Life at sea
On a more personal level, these sea trials have also been a full immersion into the realities of life at sea. Most of us had never been on a commercial ship before. The team experienced first-hand many of the realities that seafarers must deal with throughout their career. Many of us were seasick at first. Tiredness often crept in, and we missed our friends and families.
The brighter side has been the genuine camaraderie that has emerged between our team and those of Louis Dreyfus Armateurs. They have been truly supportive and helped us find solutions to enable us to carry out our trials while respecting their operational constraints. We would like to thank them for their support throughout this journey. We would also like to thank our customer Airbus, whose transport and logistics department is working with us closely on a daily basis to facilitate our logistics and communicate any changes to their schedule early.
Despite human and technical challenges, we are motivated by the sense that we’re doing something important for the planet, today and for the next generations. We have children, who will have to face enormous challenges related to climate change and environment protection. Being able to use our knowledge in aeronautics to help reduce emissions from shipping is the way in which we can contribute to change things for the better, and this is really important for us.
The sea trials are setting out to do something new and important. Deploying the Seawing is ambitious, but it is achievable with the right expertise, and worth it – the climate crisis demands this kind of ambition. And we are proud that our team is on the front line to make it a reality today.