Exclusive Interview with Vincent Bernatets, Founder and CEO, Airseas

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K-Line ship with Seawing (Image Courtesy: Airseas)

Sea News interviewed Vincent Bernatets, Founder and CEO, Airseas, a rapidly expanding firm which has redefined the ways in which wind power can be harnessed effectively. Bernatets inputs threw light on the industry’s stance on innovative technology, decarbonisation and how his experience in the aviation industry helped him envision smart ways of tapping wind in shipping sector.

The excerpts….

15 years with aerospace giant, Airbus – What changed your mind to begin on your own?

Alongside my passion for aerospace and technology, I have a passion for everything to do with the sea and environment. Given the world is facing an environmental crisis, everybody has their part to play. The aviation industry has seen a significant evolution over the years in improving its environmental credentials, and through founding Airseas, we are bringing an element of this expertise to wind technology in shipping to help manage its fuel consumption and emissions.

You have been in a number of technical and commercial roles, how much is this role, as CEO, different from the previous one? Is it easier?

Vincent Bernatets, Founder and CEO, Airseas

Leading Airseas comes with its own unique set of challenges. Chiefly we have gone from an industry that has seen rapid technological development over the last few decades to one that is perceived as relatively slow-moving with regards to adopting new technologies.

A key similarity, however, is that there’s a strong degree of problem-solving. In aeronautics, the challenge was to develop and implement automation software to improve safety and reliability on modern aircraft. With Airseas, we aim to develop a solution that will bring fuel-saving and emissions reduction benefits to shipping that is also safe. In doing so, we also have to persuade the shipping industry that wind is a viable commercial solution.

In doing so, we are harnessing and coordinating a significant amount of cross-sector learning in translating aerospace technology to maritime engineering, which is a significant challenge.

Tell us about the green ideas that Airseas will offer the shipping industry.

Against the backdrop of the decarbonisation timeline and the countdown to 2050, the shipping industry is facing the prospect of strict environmental controls in the coming years. Wind presents an unlimited, and fuel agnostic energy source for ships. Airseas is supporting the shipping industry to take a positive leap forward in harnessing wind power in a smart, innovative way. We have developed wind technology that enables owners to access a solution that is reliable, safe, and optimises fuel savings.

Amongst the lack of clarity that is appearing with the choices surrounding decarbonisation, wind is emerging as a key ally that must be explored by owners. Wind technology will be on the market sooner than the majority of the low to zero carbon options that are currently on the horizon. Wind technology presents owners with a solution that is stable and reliable, and cuts through the debate on future low and carbon fuels, carbon tax, carbon capture and offsetting approaches. Whatever incentives and alternative fuel technologies eventually emerge as the most viable, wind power can reliably reduce fuel use and its associated costs.

What according to you is a “modern shipping industry”? How does Airseas contribute to this?

We see “the modern shipping industry” as one that is responding effectively to its current challenges. Amid the current climate crisis, we are seeing other sectors embrace green technologies to help improve environmental credentials, and we see this challenge as the defining one for shipping in the coming decades.

The shipping industry is slowly starting to make progress in the area, but the pace and scale needs to pick up to provide any real change anytime soon. Innovation will be a crucial element and the shipping industry should be embracing any measures that help speed up innovation and apply it to vessels to bring immediate benefits.

Airseas is helping by supporting the case of wind as a viable option in shipping. It has harnessed experiences from the aerospace industry and merged this with marine engineering to drive innovation in wind technology. This will help speed up the attitude change in the industry, who are slowly starting to see the viability of wind as an option to help shipping on the road to decarbonisation.

How important is the role of technology in shipping? What do you have to offer in this field?

Technology is vital to Airseas and the development of wind solutions for shipping, and the innovation exchange between aviation and maritime has been pivotal in this area. One area of technology that is crucial is the use of a digital twin on the Airseas kite solution. We have merged physical hardware with advanced automation technology that is underpinned by multiple data streams. This digital twinning allows it to take into account and react to the conditions that the vessel and the kite are exposed to.

Two distinct digital twin applications are operating with the Airseas kite solution. The first takes into account meteorological, navigational, and seascape data from bridge technology and sensor data. After this data is analysed, and an informed recommendation can be made to the captain, who can then decide whether to deploy Seawing from its mast on the foredeck. When it is deployed, the software can monitor changes in conditions from sensors on the kite and within a 300-millisecond reaction time – making micro-adjustments to ensure that it is at its optimum position to maximise traction. Not only does this help with generating maximum fuel and emissions savings, but also improves safety as human interaction is kept to a minimum, resulting in less risk to the kite, the vessel, and crew through human error.

The second digital twin aspect combines the automation software with routing and navigation software to recommend a route to the captain that will ensure optimum kite use, and consequently, maximise the fuel savings.

10 years from now, where do you see Airseas?

Seawing on Airbus (Image Courtesy: Airseas)

By 2030, the shipping industry will have hit its deadline to reduce CO2 emissions per transport work, as an average across international shipping, by at least 40%. It will only be two decades away from the IMO deadline of halved CO2 emissions. By this time, we see wind solutions making significant progress in supporting shipping on the road to zero carbon. We see wind technologies working alongside the alternative fuels that develop and the industry working to a new status quo that keeps renewable technologies such as wind at its heart.

We also hope to have perfected the innovation exchange between the aerospace and maritime sectors, to ensure that shipping is benefitting from evolving technologies quicker than it is doing so now.

What new and upcoming developments can we expect from you in the near future?

The first major use will be on the 154m RoRo vessel: Ville de Bordeaux, which is used by Airbus to transport aircraft parts between St Nazaire and Mobile, Alabama.

Following the first full-scale trial, we will be going live with our launch customer, K Line later in 2021 who placed an order that could ultimately see 50 Seawing units deployed across their fleet.

COVID-19 – Difficult times are these. How do you think the pandemic has/will impact the Renewable Energy/Shipping market?

Many see the recovery from the current pandemic as a green one, so we could see a significant development in the attention the shipping industry places on our sector. As owners look to maintain commercial buoyancy coming out of the pandemic, they will be exploring fuel-saving technologies that will help preserve profit margins against bunker price volatility. As such, they should be exploring renewable technology such as wind solutions for their fleets. Despite this, the financial pressures and challenges caused by COVID-19 are real, and many sectors are suffering – just as the shipping industry is taking the first vital steps towards tackling emissions. Many are calling for the current crisis not to derail the decarbonisation agenda, and we agree; to make this happen suppliers and technology providers need to show how their technology generates a return on investment and empowers owners and operators to recover stronger. It’s encouraging that many of the major players who committed to net-zero before the pandemic see this as an integral part of their business now; the main challenge is to show the wider industry, the medium and smaller sized owners, that investing in decarbonisation will pay off.

Sea News Feature, July 9

Baibhav Mishra
Author: Baibhav Mishra