We cover many wondrous things on Gizmag but few fall into this category for elegance and technological excellence and sheer beauty. Project GreenJet is the modern day equivalent of the jet aircraft on the water and builds on the automated functionality of Erik Sifrer’s highly-acclaimed 36 metre SY120 concept only on a grander 57 metre scale. Going several steps further than the breathtaking, already-in-the-water 88 m Maltese Falcon, Green Jet uses automated systems controlling non-conventional sails to offer a glimpse of the future of sail – faster, more efficient, less labour intensive with minimal environmental impact. The vision is a superyacht sailed by one man with a touchscreen. Gizmag investigates the potential for automated sailing in this feature article.
Mankind's history is intertwined with sailing. The Egyptians are the earliest recorded sailors (3500 BC) though evidence exists of Japanese sailors being shipwrecked in South America in the same period. Since then, each new understanding of the science of sailing has brought with it an important enabling technology for civilization itself. Over 5500 years, sailors and boatbuilders have learned better ways to balance the forces of the wind against the sails to safely carry know-how and trade over ever-increasing distances.
UPGRADE TO NEW ATLAS PLUS
More than 1,500 New Atlas Plus subscribers directly support our journalism, and get access to our premium ad-free site and email newsletter. Join them for just US$19 a year.UPGRADE
The science of sailing may seem simple, yet it is not. At its simplest, a group of sailors control the direction and speed of their boat by changing the rigging and rudder and hull to create and manage an interface between the forces of the wind and water. Over five millennia, mankind has devised better hulls, masts, sails, rigs, rudders, to better manage those forces.
Mastery of the skill of sailing requires vast experience in varying wind and sea conditions, understanding of the characteristics of the vessel you are sailing and implementing the optimum setting to achieve the desired result. Mastery is rare, and even the masters of today often get it wrong despite the array of technological decision-making aids at their disposal. Mankind owes much for the speed of its development to those who mastered sailing and ventured into the unknowns of the sea – those who got there and back contributed disproportionately to the spread of new ideas on the planet for five thousand years.
Now with the internet permeating every corner of the globe, and knowledge readily shareable across all boundaries, we are about to see new thinking brought to one of man’s oldest pursuits, and the prospect is very tantalizing in what it might offer.
Seafaring’s incomplete history
Since the dawn of history this seemingly simple, yet incredibly complex thing known as sailing has afforded mankind greater mobility and capacity for fishing, trade, warfare and an exchange of ideas via human capital travel.
There is enough unsubstantiated evidence around to suggest that many nations developed superb seamanship thousands of years ago, with the possibility that Japanese visited Ecuador (3500 BC), the Phoenicians sailed the Atlantic (1100 BC), Greeks visited America (400BC) and that Roman merchants traded with America (200 BC). You won’t find it in a history book, but knowledge discovery has long since outstripped the history book’s ability to keep up.
The world’s first global trade mission (and circumnavigation)
The most compelling evidence yet that history hasn’t fully unearthed a fraction of human maritime history is Gavin Menzies 1421 book. Menzies modern day (the book was only published in 2002) forensic work has brought to light the story of the world’s first globally-aimed trade mission, using the vast resources of the Ming Dynasty and world-leading Chinese Naval Technology and seamanship. Chinese Muslim Admiral Zheng He’s most famous voyage of 1421 saw him command 28,000 sailors across a fleet of 320 ships, comprised mainly of large six-masted ships but including 62 NINE-masted treasure ships with four decks, 150 metre length and capable of carrying 500 passengers.
In 1420, China’s navy was easily the largest in the world, with 400 large war junks stationed at Nanking, 1,350 warships, river and canal patrol boats stationed elsewhere, 3,000 merchant vessels that could be converted into fighting ships if needed, 400 huge grain transports, and 250 “treasure ships,” heavily-armed, bulk overseas treasure carriers that brought back riches from far flung missions of trade and diplomacy.
Admiral Zheng He’s most prodigious discovery fleet of 1421 was as self-sufficient as the current U.S. Navy in every respect with a well-thought out representation of every conceivable need – from on-board desalination facilities, a dispersed set of well-trained single-purpose personel including doctors, scientific explorers, trade merchants, warriors, sailors, entertainers and courtesans, who sailed with the fleet to staff the on-board brothels.
The Chinese Navy was not just extremely organized and large – boat against boat, it’s massive technological advantage gave it a range of state-of-the-art armaments that would have decimated any European fleet of the time.
It must be remembered that the Chinese invented gunpowder and had learned to use it to great effect for military purposes over many centuries. Whilst the West was fumbling with slow-loading inaccurate cannons, the Chinese fleet was armed with an array of cannon from small to fearsome, PLUS rockets which could be fired with a high degree of accuracy to set alight enemy sails, rendering them immobile while the cannons were accurately aimed.
Many people have cast doubts about the designs of the largely flat-bottomed Chinese boats and their ability to safely sail on the open seas, yet compelling evidence exists that the fleet sailed to all corners of the world and landed an unbelievable treasure trove at Nanking across several years as the fleet returned from its voyages of discovery.
The Admiral, legend has it, on several occasions filled the harbour of key overseas ports, with the fleet anchored all the way to the horizon, in order to intimidate those who were not seen as compliant enough. These displays of overwhelming military force must surely ranks amongst history’s most spectacular moments.
The biggest wooden boats in history
Just how big the largest of Zheng He’s sailing ships were, is a matter of debate. Until a recent archeological find, these large warships had only ever been described, and were not captured in paintings. There has been much postulation on the size of the biggest ships, with some believing there were mega-treasure ships as long as 600 feet, while others pointing out a wooden boat of such size was a physical impossibility. Had such boats existed in 1421, they would have been more than twice the size of anything that existed in Europe at the time, and bigger than any known wooden boat in history, to this present day .
Then came a chance finding in 1962, within sight of the Ming naval shipyards in Nanking. Peasants unearthed a rudder-post some 36.2 feet long and 1.25 feet in diameter believed to be from one of the giant ships. Using these measurements, naval architects estimate that the rudder attached to the post was nearly half its length in height and breadth, or 452 square feet of wood. The ship to which such a rudder belonged, following the rules of thumb for Chinese ship construction, would be at least 400 feet long. One rudder does not a treasure ship make, but when archeologists excavating the same Ming naval shipyards in 2004 found another two rudder-posts the same size, we get a tantalizing hint of what could have existed at the time - a navy of gigantic ships that outweighed, out-gunned and out-classed anything afloat in 1420 and was arguably as dominant as the U.S Fleet is today.
As we often find when researching a story for Gizmag these days, “there’s so much more to find out about this”. Clearly we have seen some magnificent sailing ships throughout history that are not yet fully documented, much less understood.
The rise and fall and rise of sailpower
Human exploitation of the wind has known many forms, and sailpower has been one humanity’s key enabling technologies from about 5500 years ago, until it became temporarily irrelevant 100 years ago – the importance of reliable delivery for the world’s growing trade meant that the more reliable power of diesel engines now carries nearly all of the world’s trade. Now, because the world has suddenly realized that it is choking on its own excrement, the impeccable environmental credentials of sailpower has it very much back in vogue. Sailpower is free and leaves no noxious residues, as opposed to most diesel-powered ships which consume an obscene amount of resources and excesses.
Shipping’s willingness to dump its prodigious waste into what has always seemed an endless supply of wilderness contributes a disproportionately large percentage of the world’s toxic emmisions. The time is fast approaching when the global public will cry out against the environmental atrocities of the shipping industry. In exactly the same way that the rest of industry has had to begin adapting its consumption habits and act responsibly within its urban and industrial environment, seafarers will also need to act far more responsibly than they have until now.
The environmental atrocities of the maritime industry
Consider these figures for a moment, which we sourced from DK Technologies. In round numbers the worlds 90,000 vessel shipping fleet burns 370 million tons of fuel per year, which in turn emit 20 million tons of SOx per year, many times that of the world’s 750 million cars. Shipping is still the most deregulated industry in the world.
Roughly one third of the world’s cargo fleet is registered under open registries. Many of the countries that operate these registries do not or are unable to ensure compliance with even the basic standards defined by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Shipping companies register their ships in countries where they do not reside to take advantage of low registration fees and taxes, as well as low labor, environmental and security standards. This low-standard competition keeps costs down by externalizing them, but is doing the world an enormous disservice in the face of global warming.
Beginning in 1990 the Sulphur in diesel fuel for cars has been steadily and drastically reduced from 5000 PPM to 50 PPM now with a further reduction to 10 PPM from 2009. In the same period the shipping industry hasn’t done much at all, and remains by far the biggest transport polluter in the world with nothing planned to dramatically change things.
While we strongly believe it’s just a matter of time before the world’s public brings the shipping industry to account, what are the alternatives to diesel? Whilst the potential to reduce emissions from the existing diesel might slow things, sail power offers the most potential to dramatically reduce the maritime industry’s environmental footprint. Given its magnitude, swapping from diesel to sail power has the potential to wrestle back the initiative in making our environment sustainable for our children.
Advanced sailing technologies are only beginning to be explored but the future of intelligent sailing systems controlled by a joystick with efficient use of energy sourced entirely from the elements is already taking shape. Take a browse through the world’s most advanced builder of high tech, low-touch motor and sail yachts Wally, and you’ll see elegance and function and advanced design. Likewise new thinking is creeping in to every form of sailing endeavour, such as the Wot Rocket currently undergoing testing for an attempt on the world speed record for sailboats.
The Wot Rocket - supercavitation
The project is being funded by Wotif internet travel site founder Graeme Wood and is the brainchild of former-world 18 ft sailing champion Sean Langman. The Wot Rocket is part sailing craft and part sailing plane and it is as unconventional a sailing boat as you’ll ever see. It also looks to be capable of knocking off the current world sailing speed record, which has been the exclusive property of French sailboarders such as Finian Maynard and more recently Antoine Albeau in recent times.
The current world speed sailing record is 49.09 knots (90.9 kilometres per hour) while Langham is hoping to exceed 50 knots with the 40-ft canoe style hull. It’s all controlled with two tiny foils and a nine metre rigid sail, with an aerofoil leading to the aerodynamic pod for the crew who wear wetsuits and oxygen masks. The pilot controls the direction and the power of the wing, and the co-pilot runs the foils. As the boat gathers speed, parts fall off to reduce drag. The aim is to induce supercavitation at low speeds, allowing Wot Rocket to fly in a gas bubble created by the outward deflection of water by a specially shaped nose cone and the expansion of gases from its fin and foil design. By keeping water from contacting the surface of the body of Wot Rocket, this will significantly reduce drag and allow extremely high speeds.
High tech offers higher speeds
One of the areas where we have seen massive development in sailing technology in recent times is in the areas of maxiyachts and long distance speed attempt sailing boats. Both areas have leveraged sponsorship and media profile to provide the necessary development funds.
With new thinking of this ilk beginning to influence the directions of sail, and a genie-like array of new sensors, processing-power and advanced motors and batteries at our disposal, it’s worth thinking about what might be possible.
Sailing in the year 2025
One of the most thought-provoking concepts we’ve ever witnessed on Gizmag is BRP’s Invitation Sailing Concept. It’s what happens when you apply new thinking to old ways. Firstly, Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP) is a spin-out from the Bombardier Industrial conglomerate that makes planes and trains and it was created as an entity to develop and make recreational products and its mission statement is quite clear - 'to bring you the most exciting and innovative recreational experience possible.'
It has already pioneered several major recreational markets such as the snowmobile and Personal Water Craft and owns the lion’s share in both global markets, and occasionally, its concepts, such as the monowheel Embrio concept, are conceptually breathtaking and a good bet for future production a decade or two from now.
Back in 2001, the design team at BRP was asked to visualise the sailboat of the year in 2025. Given the resources of the think tank of idea-driven company specialising in designing and manufacturing recreational products of almost every conceivable ilk (snowmobiles, jet skis, speedboats, inboard and outboard marine motors, go-karts, motorcycle and aircraft engines, high tech clothing, helmets, all terrain vehicles ad infinitum), they produced a remarkable concept.
Bearing in mind that 2025 was more than two decades away, many new technologies would be expected to become available for the 'Invitation' by then. The brief BRP statement on the Invitation's feature set reads in part: 'Interface would be with artificial intelligence providing behaviours that would adapt to the users' personality and skill.'
BRP also envisions the operation of the 'Invitation' will be 'similar to riding a horse,' in that 'subtle (changes to) body language' will control the boat's direction, steering and attitude 'more than operations related to conventional boating.' Artificial intelligence will progress significantly over the next two decades so BRP envisions a sailboat which sails in the same way a fighter aircraft flies - the pilot's fly-by-wire controls tell the plane what to do, and the massive computing power takes over and does the rest.
By 2025, given that Moore's Law has become a self-fulfilling prophecy which no company is prepared to transgress, we can confidently expect this sailboat will have far more computing power available than anything currently in the sky, even if it has a NASA badge on it. Not only will it be powerful, it will be incredibly cheap because the microprocessor will by then be offering a cost-performance we can scarcely imagine right now.
Similarly, the sail adjustments to capture the wind which are today done with strength and balance on a small sailing boat or wind-surfer will be done electronically by then, with gyroscopic balance. Given the rate of progress of fuel-cell design and mass manufacture, and that most of the world's automobiles will be electrically- or fuel-cell powered by 2025, the power supply for the advanced electric motors which trim and adjust the sails will again be cheap, with high power-density and abundant power.
The 'Invitation' was also conceived to have 'behaviors that would adapt to the users' personality and skill', indicating that the skill levels will auto adjust, much the same way a computer game has skills levels, with the machine able to sense the capabilities of the rider in the same way that a good riding school horse compensates for the learner and stretches its legs for the intermediate rider.
Responsiveness and sensitivity to the balance of the rider are just a few of the characteristsics we can expect here. In all it looks like the future of sailing might actually be available to everyone, as the intelligent sailboard will adapt an interpret sailor behaviours to enable the learner to forgo the long and painful learning process.
It's sure to be a bugbear for all those who spent long hours learning their sailing craft, but it will make sailing available to everyone – perhaps not in its purest form, but pretty close and without several decades of tuition.
What else is known about the Invitation concept can be found here.
And at the bleeding edge of this automated design, imagine the Formula One sailing races, with perhaps a weight and dimensions limit and the need to use the wind for motive power. What types of cleverness could be brought to bear on such craft, and how different would they be to the Wot Rocket?
And with the availability of a new array of maritime control mechanisms and electrically powered retractable motors, large transport and cruise ships can and should be cost-efficient and environmentally friendly. Wind is free. We know it works. Surely we should employ it immediately so we can minimize the damage we are doing to our marine environment.
The promise of Kite Sails
Indeed, with modern technology, it may indeed be possible to extract the energy from far more wind than we thought was out there. One fascinating area of development with enormous potential is in the area of high-tech kite sails that generate even propulsion power than conventional sails.
The Kite For Sail project in Hawaii that utilizes kite-sail technology to harness higher atmospheric winds than afforded to conventional sail configurations. They initially fitted a kite-system to a Hobie Catamaran test boat, and developed many prototypes culminating in the current F24 Corsair trimaran. The 18-meter kite system provides the power most of the time, but the trimaran’s engine is still used in light winds and to manoeuvre the vessel into launch and docking position. A recent trial saw the vessel achieve between 7 to 10 knot boat speed without the use of the engine in 4 to 8 foot wind swell and winds of between 15 and 20 knots with four crew aboard and trolling two lines.
Quite clearly such a system could be retrofitted to and significantly supplement the propulsion systems of all kinds of cargo vessels and in the process generate economic benefit, reduce reliance on fossil fuels and reduce emissions in a sector that has become one of the world’s biggest polluters.
In Europe, Hamburg-based SkySails has already begun testing its towing kite propulsion system with a view to integrating it to regular shipping operations. The 132m long Multi Purpose Heavy Lift Carrier MS "Beluga SkySails" sailed from Bremen to Venezuela in January equipped with 160m2 SkySails supporting the main engine. The sails can supply around five tons of tractive force at low wind.
SkySails expects the system to reduce fuel costs by between 10 and 35%, depending on the prevailing wind conditions, with temporary cuts of 50% achievable in optimal wind conditions. The first results are to be expected in the next few months.
The impact of International Trade
International trade relied on sailpower until a century ago and 5400 years of development faltered when environmentally responsible steam and not-so-environmentally sustainable oil were used to generate the 100% reliable motive forces that commerce required, and sail has had precious little development funding since.
For the last century, much of the focus in developing more efficient international transport for travel and trade has focused on the aeroplane. One hundred years ago, both sailboats and aeroplanes were largely constructed from canvas and wood, control was enabled by ropes and cables and then … aircraft rapidly evolved into composite, high tech, computer-controlled projectiles and sailing ships languished far behind, starved of funding to keep pace with the change. Sailing became a high cost leisure activity while jet aircraft served the bleeding edge delivery of almost every non-digital commercial activity.
The maritime industry still carries almost all international trade – 90 percent of goods by volume that are traded across a border are moved by sea. In 2004, UNCTAD estimated global freight costs at US$380 billion – a surprisingly small 5.4 percent of the total value of global imports. Perhaps it is time to raise those prices and do things in an environmentally responsible manner.
“If you want to see how far we haven’t come in the marine industry, take a look at the aeronautical industry of 100 years ago and now,” says Sifrer.
“In the beginning, aircraft had canvas wings strengthened by wooden profiles and were connected by wires, then they added another wing and another! After WWI, industry and aero technology was progressing a century per decade using new materials and construction. Technology solved problems and enabled regular quantum leaps of performance and reliability.
“Aerospace became the place where new technology was first applied – pilot information systems, computer-controlled everything, pressurised cabins, wonderous new powerplants. From wings made of canvas, wire and wood and engines barely able to lift the plane off the ground, aircraft now have one-piece carbon wings packed with computers and jet engines flying on the edge of the earth’s atmosphere at double the speed of the sound.”
“Yacht design, by comparison, has progressed very little. With a few exceptions, the industry has stagnated. Why? Because of conservative thinking of leading groups, different restricted offshore rules and lack of good marketing of new ideas.
“That was the reason we decided to create a really new yacht design concept! To push the boundaries. Everything started with my master’s degree in which I was trying to search for the new future guidelines of yacht design and construction, especially in sail boats and try to find the vision of nautical trends and movement.”
The SY120 and why it is special
The object of Sifrer’s degree became a 36 m futurist carbon super yacht, which he named the SY 120, a completely new design concept and solutions for basic sailboat elements. The research for the project took him four years and the degree project earned him both educational and industry acclaim in yacht magazines world wide.
What set the SY120 apart from everything before it, was its wholistic approach to sailing and the use of automated adjustments.
From Wikipedia’s excellent resource on the physics of sailing: “The energy that drives a sailboat is harnessed by manipulating the relative movement of wind and water speed: if there is no difference in movement, such as on a calm day or when the wind and water current are moving in the same direction, there is no energy to be extracted and the sailboat will not be able to do anything but drift. Where there is a difference in motion, then there is energy to be extracted at the interface, and the sailboat does this by placing the sail(s) in the air and the hull(s) in the water.
Sails are airfoils that work by using an airflow set up by the wind and the motion of the boat. The combination of the two is the apparent wind, which is the relative velocity of the wind relative to the boat's motion. The sails generate lift using the air that flows around them. The air flowing at the sail surface is not the true wind.
The sail alone is not sufficient to drive the boat in any desired direction, as a sail by itself would only push a boat in the same direction as the wind. Sailboats overcome this by having another physical object below the water line. These include, a keel, centerboard, or some other form of underwater foil or even the hull itself (as in catamarans without centreboard or in a traditional proa). Thus, the physical portion of the boat which is below water can be regarded as functioning as a "second sail". Having two surfaces against the wind and water enables the sailor to travel in almost any direction and to generate an additional source of lift from the water.
The under-water area of SY 120 is composed of two keels with inner volume and high density ballast. The keels are attached at angle of 30 degrees to the sides of the transversal hull structure. One keel has two blades with two pipes inside, attached with inner volume at the bottom and connected with a pump to the other side. The pump pushes ballast from one volume to another through one of the pipes, according to the angle of lean. Computers control the amount of ballast in the volumes.
The SY 120 rigging is an aero sail, stretched and rotated between two masts, attached to the side edges of the deck. The aero sail is composed of a fixed front edge with the sail sliding verticality and towards the boom, where it is rolled. The sail is trimmed (rolled) with a shaft, located in the boom, with the furling system attached perpendicularly to the shaft. Such a sail enables simple, single-handed steering of a sailboat with the help of custom computer systems.
Sailing boats require a lot of human effort to adjust their settings because weather and wind conditions change so frequently that they consume all of the resources available to sail one properly. Sailing a big boat requires a rugby team of well-trained sailors. “You need 20 athletes to set the sails on a 30 metre sail boat,” says Sifrer, “using dozens of ropes, pulleys, winches, trackers and different types of deck gear.”
Automation and robotic technologies have been evolving rapidly over the last few decades, and are about to replace the aforementioned rugby team, and the time-honoured traditions which transported people and cargoes safely for the last 600 years are about to come under challenge from a new generation of sailing ship, and Sifrer is at the forefront of thinking on where it’s going.
Designer Erik Sifrer believes sailing technology has progressed very little in the last 250 years, pointing out that a conventional sail boat uses sails only 2% of the time and he believes that by automating and continuously changing the settings of the sails, it can continually optimize the energy it captures from the wind and tide. His design concept for Project Green Jet is to make better and more efficient use of the forces of nature.
How to tap the energy of the wind more efficiently
“Wind offers an endless supply of clean energy, so the question is primarily, how can we tap this energy resource more efficiently, and what could the new rig look like in the future? So I started where my last project finished, with a model of the SY 120, then extended and improved it, made it more spectacular and we have just presented it to the public at Dubai International Boat Show 2008under sponsorship of Mides Engineering and Mides-design."
“The Green Jet Project is an evolution of the SY120 concept. We wish to continue presenting new technologies and designs and a new vision of what a sail yacht can be and Green Jet is the next step in putting those thoughts in the water.”
There’s little doubt that the astonishingly beautiful Maltese Falcon is the current torch holder of this concept of automated, intelligent sailing, but Sifrer’s concepts go well beyond the Maltese Falcon’s capabilities in automating the trimming of the sails.
“I incorporated the word “jet” in the title of the boat specifically because it is a jet whist setting up and trimming the sails, meaning it is both fast and easy,” Sifrer says, who aims to utilize computerized automated systems and touch screen interfaces so that one person can do the job of a team of sailors. Hydraulic motors will pull the sail to its 55 metre height (top of the rig is 62m) in around 30 to 40 seconds and each sail can rotate through 160 degrees on a pivot point to best catch the wind. Navigation is touch-screen and simple, though the system that sails the boat is far from that, not to mention monitoring an array of weather information systems.
So how close is this concept to reality? It appears to us to be much closer than most concepts this far out of the square. The basic calculations for Green Jet have already done by Marin and interior design will be finished in Art Line Interior Design from Netherlands.
“The concept is completely new and of course it needs to be put into the wind tunnel for testing and tank testing and later applied to scale model, but as we know, nowadays everything is possible!,” says Sifrer.
“We are in marketing phase which includes searching for potential investors. That kind of vessel could be built by German, Italian, New Zealand or Netherlands shipyards and we’re seeking interest so we can explain what’s possible. Because we are developing new systems the cost of Green Jet will probably exceed 70 million euro and it will take from 3-6 years. From there it gets easier as we understand how things will work to their optimum.
“We are very young team with what I believe is a great vision,” who gained a lot of experience working for Seaway creating tooling and design for Bavaria, Jeanneau, Grand Soleil, Shipman carbon yachts ...
Sailing is the art of controlling a sailing vessel. It would seem that at some point in the next decade or so, we’ll see a vast sailing ship under the control of just one person. Perhaps one day even as reliable as a car, it’s onboard systems having long since mastered the incredibly complex art of sailing and with full knowledge of approaching weather and sea conditions.
Mike HanlonView gallery - 73 images