“The issue for the ecosystem is to adapt these technology bricks to merchant ships so as to launch future sailing ships.”
The Imoca monohull sailing yachts of the Vendée Globe have become true technology platforms: the know-how and innovations developed for competitive sailing are being transferred ever more to maritime transport, and more generally, to industry.
On November 8th, 2020, the 33 competitors of the Vendée Globe set sail from the Sables d’Olonne once again to sail round the world, solo, non-stop and without assistance. This unparalleled competition may be boosted by technological innovation, but another phenomenon has also been at work over the past few years: the increasingly sophisticated technology bricks developed within the frame of the Vendée Globe are being transferred to other areas.
Logically, the first to benefit from this is maritime transport, as shipowners seek on board the Vendée Globe sailing yachts solutions for reducing their own environmental footprint. However, they are not alone. Industry is also looking closely at the onboard systems.
Maritime transport sets sail once again
In 2018, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) adopted measures to reduce the total annual greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping by at least 50 % by 2050 compared to 2008, forcing market players to explore new avenues to reduce their fossil fuel consumption.
Among these, sailpower (using the wind’s kinetic energy to propel boats forward) seems to be a promising solution for decarbonising maritime transport. Sailpower cargo or cruise ship projects are on the increase (in reality they are often equipped with hybrid propulsion).
In their quest for performance, the offshore racing community members have developed a unique know-how in this area. Numerous innovations have emerged from within the race teams, naval architecture firms, ship builders, and equipment manufacturers, and proved their potential on the racing yachts. The key issue for the ecosystem (read “The Bretagne Sailing Valley” below), is to adapt these technology bricks to merchant ships so as to launch future sailing ships that can compete with today’s cruise ships, bulk carriers, and container ships.
Cargo ships with sails and ferries with foils
Searching for a clean mode of transportation to convey the parts of the Ariane 6 launcher from Europe to its Kourou launch base, Ariane Group turned to French naval architecture firm VPLP, whose boats won the last two Vendée Globes.
VPLP imagined a modern sail cargo ship, which takes its shape and components from both the aeronautics industry and competitive sailing. Named “Canopée”, this 121-metre-long and 23-metre-wide roro vessel with hybrid propulsion is equipped with 4,375 m2 articulated wing-sails, thanks to which it should use 30 % less fuel and save 7,200 tons of CO2 per year compared to a conventional ship of the same size.
Also interested in passenger transport, the architects are currently working on a passenger ferry with foils.
For their part, Chantiers de l’Atlantique have called upon Multiplast, an SME specialised in the manufacturing of racing yachts in composite materials, to work on a rigid sail named “Solid Sail”.
Tested on Jean Le Cam’s Imoca on his return from the 2016 Vendée Globe, this technology was designed to propel Silenseas, the future hybrid cruise ship of the Saint-Nazaire (Loire-Atlantique, France) shipyard, a nearly 200-metre-long vessel equipped with three sails whose surface totals 4,350 m2.
A fantastic test bed for industry
The technologies developed for the Vendée Globe Imocas, monohull yachts designed for competing and facing up to the sea’s worst conditions, may seem very specific. However, it is in fact because these yachts are confronted with extreme conditions that they constitute a fantastic “test bed” for industry, making it possible to test concepts and validate technologies.
Thus, the solutions aimed at helping skippers to win the Everest of the seas can help to address a number of technological challenges and lead to applications that go beyond the world of competition or even that of shipping.
This is particularly the case of onboard systems, with the Vendée Globe yachts’ onboard instruments having seen significant developments over the past few years. All that has been developed around data acquisition, transmission and processing, progress made in terms of energy efficiency, etc., are of valuable interest to industrial automation.
This is what is highlighted by Nokia Bell Labs, who have developed several technologies for Alex Thomson’s Imoca, “The automation and AI systems we have created for Alex and Hugo Boss have clear applications for business and industrial automation, and they could potentially be used in future Nokia products and services. The systems on board the boat must be reliable in the most extreme weather conditions. It is the same for the industrial automation systems that we develop for mining operations, for offshore oil platforms, and even space exploration.”
According to Nokia’s industrial research institute, the Vendée Globe “presents an intriguing opportunity to solve one of the most vexing problems facing widespread deployment of AI and industrial automation systems: how to augment and automate mission critical remote systems.”
e-Telltale, from sails to wind turbine blades
The wind power industry is also opening up to the competitive sailing community, as is shown by the example of Trimcontrol, developed by Michel Desjoyeaux’ team, Mer Agitée. This electronic telltale (e-telltale) makes it possible to monitor air flow on the sails in real time, which helps the skipper make fine tune adjustments to optimise the yacht’s speed.
This innovation, tried and tested on the Vendée Globe boats, turns out to be very useful in the wind power sector. It is quite possible to install an e-telltale on a wind turbine’s blades to get precise information on the air flow along them. This enables the operator to ensure that the angle of incidence of the blades is well-adjusted and, if necessary, to correct it so as to obtain a better aerodynamic performance (the amount of wind energy transferred to the rotor). A version of Mer Agitée’s e-telltale is being tested within the scope of a programme supported by the French Agency for ecological transition (Ademe).
The Bretagne Sailing Valley
VPLP Design, Multiplast, and Mer Agitée are all part of the “Sailing Valley”, the competitive sailing technological ecosystem based in Brittany, where some of the world’s most high-performing and most innovative boats are born. Made up of over 200 companies, mainly SMEs, this Breton pole concentrates most of the offshore racing skills: architecture, shipbuilding, manufacturing of rigging and appendages, onboard electronic equipment, etc.