As the European Space Agency prepares its next-generation Ariane 6 rocket for a long-awaited debut launch, the journey to transport the spacecraft’s parts offered an opportunity to test innovative green shipping technology. ArianeGroup, the company behind the Ariane rockets, commissioned a specially-designed cargo vessel called the Canopée to haul over 5,000 tons of rocket materials from Europe to the launch site in French Guiana. Powered in part by massive automated sails, Canopée recently completed its first transatlantic voyage while slashing fuel use and emissions.
Harnessing the Power of the Wind
The key to Canopée’s hybrid propulsion system lies with four towering “Oceanwings” sails, created by French startup AYRO. Reaching upwards of 37 meters high and 11 meters wide once unfurled, these rigid sails automatically orient based on wind patterns to generate supplemental thrust. With the Oceanwings working in tandem with diesel engines, Canopée cut fuel consumption by around 30% on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic while transporting delicate rocket parts.
Now that this first mission is complete, the 121-meter cargo ship will conduct regular trips between Europe and French Guiana. ArianeGroup projects at least one dozen annual voyages for Canopée to transport Ariane 6 materials and hardware over the rocket’s operational lifespan. Beyond the space sector, the early success of combining wind and diesel propulsion on an industrial vessel of this scale is a promising sign for slashing greenhouse gas emissions within the global shipping industry.
Pioneering Steps Towards Emission Reductions
International shipping generates over 3% of global emissions yearly, eclipsing the aviation industry’s carbon footprint. Decarbonizing the overwhelmingly diesel-centric cargo fleet poses extreme challenges, especially when cleaner alternatives like hydrogen or batteries remain impractical for long voyages. However, with maritime transport responsible for moving 90% of globally traded goods, the environmental impacts of shipping will only swell without interventions.
Retrofitting existing vessels with innovative technologies like automated sails represents one of the most feasible ways to curb emissions currently. Companies beyond AYRO are also entering the market, eager to integrate wind power solutions compatible with today’s cargo ships. For example, BAR Technologies’ “WindWings” technology assisted propulsion on a vessel traveling recently from China to Brazil. Looking ahead, Swedish startup Oceanbird is gearing up to install 40-meter tall sails on a 14-year-old car carrier, visibly demonstrating how existing ships can transition towards renewable energy sources.
As the Canopée commences regular sail-powered trips across the Atlantic over the next few years, the ripple effects could be profound. Its early accomplishments provide a compelling case study for hybrid diesel-wind propulsion, not just in the niche aerospace cargo sector but the mainstream delivery of raw materials, consumer products and commodities worldwide. Although still in its infancy, harnessing wind to slash fuel consumption and emissions from oceangoing vessels appears positioned to steadily gain momentum. If realized at scale, the long-term impacts would cut deep in the urgent fight against climate change.