What future for flying turbines?

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Ilaria Valtimora
September 4, 2017
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What future for flying turbines?

Is there change in the air? Since the mid-1970s, a group of dedicated pioneers have been working on plans for airborne wind turbines. This has accelerated in the last ten years as companies have looked at how they can use it to take wind into new areas.

Even so, we are still a long way from a flying turbine project getting off the ground.

One of the first companies to bet on the success of airborne turbines was Makani. Corwin Hardham, Don Montagu and Saul Griffith founded the business in 2006 to develop robot kites, which can harness wind power through turbines mounted on an airborne drone flying in circles and transmitting electricity to the ground via a tether.

The idea is that the kite would generate electricity by reaching higher altitudes than conventional wind turbines, while eliminating 90% of the materials used to build one. This would simplify transportation and system start-up time, and cut material costs.

The project caught the attention of Google, which invested $10m in the company in 2006 and another $5m in 2008, before acquiring it in 2013. It wanted to make the project commercially viable through the collaboration with Google’s research-and-development lab X. In 2014, the project made up 10% of the X budget.

Another flying turbines pioneer is Altaeros, which was founded in 2010 and launched its Buoyant Airborne Turbine system in 2014. The BAT is a doughnut-shaped helium balloon with a wind turbine in it. The project received support from Japan’s SoftBank for $7m for the development and commercialisation of the machine in 2014, and in 2015 secured further backing from Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Oman’s Suhail Bahwan Group. However, the latest we heard is that Altaeros is looking to use its airborne technology to support a rural broadband project called SuperTower.

And utilities E.On and Shell have also been actively investing in airborne turbines. At the end of 2016 they, along with oilfield services company Schlumberger, invested €6m, to support the commercial development of its technology. This April, E.On also signed an agreement Dutch company Ampyx Power to collaborate on a project to use its fixed-wing airborne wind systems for deployment in utility-scale wind farms.

But, at present, we see little indication of the turbines reaching commercial maturity.

In the conventional turbine sector, costs keep falling quickly as manufacturers fight to make their machines cheaper and more efficient. This is competition for the airborne turbine makers as developers and investors play it safe with conventional systems.

Likewise, these manufacturers are innovating so their clients can build wind farms in new areas, which makes it hard for new tech to break through.

Let’s look at Makani. Its robot kite is reportedly making progress: it made its first test flight last year, and more flights have followed. However, after over ten years from the launch of the company, the kite has not supplied a single kilowatt to a utility.
This is taking its toll. Bloomberg has reported that support from Google has recently diminished and Makani staff numbers have fallen from over 100 to below 50 in the past two years.

Airborne wind technologies do have some potential advantages, which include lower costs for materials and reaching high altitudes, where wind is more stable. But they also involve new challenges that developers and investors need to face, like getting site approval for schemes that are more likely to interfere with planes. That is tough.

Wind farms are increasingly attractive for investors because they represent low risk, high profit investments. The use of new technologies would influence either risk or profitability, or both, at least at the beginning.

Companies should still try. New systems could allow wind power to reach new areas and use winds more efficiently. At very least, the turbines could be beneficial in ways we have not yet imagined. That requires imagination and confidence – from both the pioneering manufacturers and their financial backers.

Is there change in the air? Since the mid-1970s, a group of dedicated pioneers have been working on plans for airborne wind turbines. This has accelerated in the last ten years as companies have looked at how they can use it to take wind into new areas.

Even so, we are still a long way from a flying turbine project getting off the ground.

One of the first companies to bet on the success of airborne turbines was Makani. Corwin Hardham, Don Montagu and Saul Griffith founded the business in 2006 to develop robot kites, which can harness wind power through turbines mounted on an airborne drone flying in circles and transmitting electricity to the ground via a tether.

The idea is that the kite would generate electricity by reaching higher altitudes than conventional wind turbines, while eliminating 90% of the materials used to build one. This would simplify transportation and system start-up time, and cut material costs.

The project caught the attention of Google, which invested $10m in the company in 2006 and another $5m in 2008, before acquiring it in 2013. It wanted to make the project commercially viable through the collaboration with Google’s research-and-development lab X. In 2014, the project made up 10% of the X budget.

Another flying turbines pioneer is Altaeros, which was founded in 2010 and launched its Buoyant Airborne Turbine system in 2014. The BAT is a doughnut-shaped helium balloon with a wind turbine in it. The project received support from Japan’s SoftBank for $7m for the development and commercialisation of the machine in 2014, and in 2015 secured further backing from Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Oman’s Suhail Bahwan Group. However, the latest we heard is that Altaeros is looking to use its airborne technology to support a rural broadband project called SuperTower.

And utilities E.On and Shell have also been actively investing in airborne turbines. At the end of 2016 they, along with oilfield services company Schlumberger, invested €6m, to support the commercial development of its technology. This April, E.On also signed an agreement Dutch company Ampyx Power to collaborate on a project to use its fixed-wing airborne wind systems for deployment in utility-scale wind farms.

But, at present, we see little indication of the turbines reaching commercial maturity.

In the conventional turbine sector, costs keep falling quickly as manufacturers fight to make their machines cheaper and more efficient. This is competition for the airborne turbine makers as developers and investors play it safe with conventional systems.

Likewise, these manufacturers are innovating so their clients can build wind farms in new areas, which makes it hard for new tech to break through.

Let’s look at Makani. Its robot kite is reportedly making progress: it made its first test flight last year, and more flights have followed. However, after over ten years from the launch of the company, the kite has not supplied a single kilowatt to a utility.
This is taking its toll. Bloomberg has reported that support from Google has recently diminished and Makani staff numbers have fallen from over 100 to below 50 in the past two years.

Airborne wind technologies do have some potential advantages, which include lower costs for materials and reaching high altitudes, where wind is more stable. But they also involve new challenges that developers and investors need to face, like getting site approval for schemes that are more likely to interfere with planes. That is tough.

Wind farms are increasingly attractive for investors because they represent low risk, high profit investments. The use of new technologies would influence either risk or profitability, or both, at least at the beginning.

Companies should still try. New systems could allow wind power to reach new areas and use winds more efficiently. At very least, the turbines could be beneficial in ways we have not yet imagined. That requires imagination and confidence – from both the pioneering manufacturers and their financial backers.

Is there change in the air? Since the mid-1970s, a group of dedicated pioneers have been working on plans for airborne wind turbines. This has accelerated in the last ten years as companies have looked at how they can use it to take wind into new areas.

Even so, we are still a long way from a flying turbine project getting off the ground.

One of the first companies to bet on the success of airborne turbines was Makani. Corwin Hardham, Don Montagu and Saul Griffith founded the business in 2006 to develop robot kites, which can harness wind power through turbines mounted on an airborne drone flying in circles and transmitting electricity to the ground via a tether.

The idea is that the kite would generate electricity by reaching higher altitudes than conventional wind turbines, while eliminating 90% of the materials used to build one. This would simplify transportation and system start-up time, and cut material costs.

The project caught the attention of Google, which invested $10m in the company in 2006 and another $5m in 2008, before acquiring it in 2013. It wanted to make the project commercially viable through the collaboration with Google’s research-and-development lab X. In 2014, the project made up 10% of the X budget.

Another flying turbines pioneer is Altaeros, which was founded in 2010 and launched its Buoyant Airborne Turbine system in 2014. The BAT is a doughnut-shaped helium balloon with a wind turbine in it. The project received support from Japan’s SoftBank for $7m for the development and commercialisation of the machine in 2014, and in 2015 secured further backing from Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Oman’s Suhail Bahwan Group. However, the latest we heard is that Altaeros is looking to use its airborne technology to support a rural broadband project called SuperTower.

And utilities E.On and Shell have also been actively investing in airborne turbines. At the end of 2016 they, along with oilfield services company Schlumberger, invested €6m, to support the commercial development of its technology. This April, E.On also signed an agreement Dutch company Ampyx Power to collaborate on a project to use its fixed-wing airborne wind systems for deployment in utility-scale wind farms.

But, at present, we see little indication of the turbines reaching commercial maturity.

In the conventional turbine sector, costs keep falling quickly as manufacturers fight to make their machines cheaper and more efficient. This is competition for the airborne turbine makers as developers and investors play it safe with conventional systems.

Likewise, these manufacturers are innovating so their clients can build wind farms in new areas, which makes it hard for new tech to break through.

Let’s look at Makani. Its robot kite is reportedly making progress: it made its first test flight last year, and more flights have followed. However, after over ten years from the launch of the company, the kite has not supplied a single kilowatt to a utility.
This is taking its toll. Bloomberg has reported that support from Google has recently diminished and Makani staff numbers have fallen from over 100 to below 50 in the past two years.

Airborne wind technologies do have some potential advantages, which include lower costs for materials and reaching high altitudes, where wind is more stable. But they also involve new challenges that developers and investors need to face, like getting site approval for schemes that are more likely to interfere with planes. That is tough.

Wind farms are increasingly attractive for investors because they represent low risk, high profit investments. The use of new technologies would influence either risk or profitability, or both, at least at the beginning.

Companies should still try. New systems could allow wind power to reach new areas and use winds more efficiently. At very least, the turbines could be beneficial in ways we have not yet imagined. That requires imagination and confidence – from both the pioneering manufacturers and their financial backers.

Is there change in the air? Since the mid-1970s, a group of dedicated pioneers have been working on plans for airborne wind turbines. This has accelerated in the last ten years as companies have looked at how they can use it to take wind into new areas.

Even so, we are still a long way from a flying turbine project getting off the ground.

One of the first companies to bet on the success of airborne turbines was Makani. Corwin Hardham, Don Montagu and Saul Griffith founded the business in 2006 to develop robot kites, which can harness wind power through turbines mounted on an airborne drone flying in circles and transmitting electricity to the ground via a tether.

The idea is that the kite would generate electricity by reaching higher altitudes than conventional wind turbines, while eliminating 90% of the materials used to build one. This would simplify transportation and system start-up time, and cut material costs.

The project caught the attention of Google, which invested $10m in the company in 2006 and another $5m in 2008, before acquiring it in 2013. It wanted to make the project commercially viable through the collaboration with Google’s research-and-development lab X. In 2014, the project made up 10% of the X budget.

Another flying turbines pioneer is Altaeros, which was founded in 2010 and launched its Buoyant Airborne Turbine system in 2014. The BAT is a doughnut-shaped helium balloon with a wind turbine in it. The project received support from Japan’s SoftBank for $7m for the development and commercialisation of the machine in 2014, and in 2015 secured further backing from Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Oman’s Suhail Bahwan Group. However, the latest we heard is that Altaeros is looking to use its airborne technology to support a rural broadband project called SuperTower.

And utilities E.On and Shell have also been actively investing in airborne turbines. At the end of 2016 they, along with oilfield services company Schlumberger, invested €6m, to support the commercial development of its technology. This April, E.On also signed an agreement Dutch company Ampyx Power to collaborate on a project to use its fixed-wing airborne wind systems for deployment in utility-scale wind farms.

But, at present, we see little indication of the turbines reaching commercial maturity.

In the conventional turbine sector, costs keep falling quickly as manufacturers fight to make their machines cheaper and more efficient. This is competition for the airborne turbine makers as developers and investors play it safe with conventional systems.

Likewise, these manufacturers are innovating so their clients can build wind farms in new areas, which makes it hard for new tech to break through.

Let’s look at Makani. Its robot kite is reportedly making progress: it made its first test flight last year, and more flights have followed. However, after over ten years from the launch of the company, the kite has not supplied a single kilowatt to a utility.
This is taking its toll. Bloomberg has reported that support from Google has recently diminished and Makani staff numbers have fallen from over 100 to below 50 in the past two years.

Airborne wind technologies do have some potential advantages, which include lower costs for materials and reaching high altitudes, where wind is more stable. But they also involve new challenges that developers and investors need to face, like getting site approval for schemes that are more likely to interfere with planes. That is tough.

Wind farms are increasingly attractive for investors because they represent low risk, high profit investments. The use of new technologies would influence either risk or profitability, or both, at least at the beginning.

Companies should still try. New systems could allow wind power to reach new areas and use winds more efficiently. At very least, the turbines could be beneficial in ways we have not yet imagined. That requires imagination and confidence – from both the pioneering manufacturers and their financial backers.

Is there change in the air? Since the mid-1970s, a group of dedicated pioneers have been working on plans for airborne wind turbines. This has accelerated in the last ten years as companies have looked at how they can use it to take wind into new areas.

Even so, we are still a long way from a flying turbine project getting off the ground.

One of the first companies to bet on the success of airborne turbines was Makani. Corwin Hardham, Don Montagu and Saul Griffith founded the business in 2006 to develop robot kites, which can harness wind power through turbines mounted on an airborne drone flying in circles and transmitting electricity to the ground via a tether.

The idea is that the kite would generate electricity by reaching higher altitudes than conventional wind turbines, while eliminating 90% of the materials used to build one. This would simplify transportation and system start-up time, and cut material costs.

The project caught the attention of Google, which invested $10m in the company in 2006 and another $5m in 2008, before acquiring it in 2013. It wanted to make the project commercially viable through the collaboration with Google’s research-and-development lab X. In 2014, the project made up 10% of the X budget.

Another flying turbines pioneer is Altaeros, which was founded in 2010 and launched its Buoyant Airborne Turbine system in 2014. The BAT is a doughnut-shaped helium balloon with a wind turbine in it. The project received support from Japan’s SoftBank for $7m for the development and commercialisation of the machine in 2014, and in 2015 secured further backing from Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Oman’s Suhail Bahwan Group. However, the latest we heard is that Altaeros is looking to use its airborne technology to support a rural broadband project called SuperTower.

And utilities E.On and Shell have also been actively investing in airborne turbines. At the end of 2016 they, along with oilfield services company Schlumberger, invested €6m, to support the commercial development of its technology. This April, E.On also signed an agreement Dutch company Ampyx Power to collaborate on a project to use its fixed-wing airborne wind systems for deployment in utility-scale wind farms.

But, at present, we see little indication of the turbines reaching commercial maturity.

In the conventional turbine sector, costs keep falling quickly as manufacturers fight to make their machines cheaper and more efficient. This is competition for the airborne turbine makers as developers and investors play it safe with conventional systems.

Likewise, these manufacturers are innovating so their clients can build wind farms in new areas, which makes it hard for new tech to break through.

Let’s look at Makani. Its robot kite is reportedly making progress: it made its first test flight last year, and more flights have followed. However, after over ten years from the launch of the company, the kite has not supplied a single kilowatt to a utility.
This is taking its toll. Bloomberg has reported that support from Google has recently diminished and Makani staff numbers have fallen from over 100 to below 50 in the past two years.

Airborne wind technologies do have some potential advantages, which include lower costs for materials and reaching high altitudes, where wind is more stable. But they also involve new challenges that developers and investors need to face, like getting site approval for schemes that are more likely to interfere with planes. That is tough.

Wind farms are increasingly attractive for investors because they represent low risk, high profit investments. The use of new technologies would influence either risk or profitability, or both, at least at the beginning.

Companies should still try. New systems could allow wind power to reach new areas and use winds more efficiently. At very least, the turbines could be beneficial in ways we have not yet imagined. That requires imagination and confidence – from both the pioneering manufacturers and their financial backers.

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Become a member of the 6,500-strong A Word About Wind community today, and gain access to our premium content, exclusive lead generation and investment opportunities.