It looks enough like a UFO to blow your mind, but it’s actually a prototype of an airborne wind turbine designed to drift aloft at high altitudes – where it catches stronger gusts than, and generates twice the power of a conventionally tower-mounted diesel model, at a lower price.
Boston-based Altaeros Energies, a wind energy company formed out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), recently completed testing of a 35-foot scale prototype of the Altaeros Airborne Wind Turbine (AWT (News - Alert)) at the Loring Commerce Center in Limestone, Maine. The prototype, fabricated in partnership with Doyle Sailmakers of Salem, Mass., achieved several key milestones.
Specifically, the AWT:
- Climbed 350 feet high, produced power at altitude, and landed in an automated cycle
- Lifted the Southwest Skystream turbine to produce more than double the power at high altitude than could have been generated at conventional tower height
- Was transported successfully by, and launched into the air from a towable docking trailer.
Altaeros is developing its first product to reduce energy costs by up to 65 percent by harnessing the stronger winds found over 1,000 feet high and reducing installation time from weeks to days. It is also designed to have virtually no environmental or noise impact, and requires minimal maintenance.
(Above) The Altaeros Airborne Wind Turbine prototype during testing in Limestone, Maine (Altaeros Energies 2012)
The Altaeros AWT will displace expensive fuel used to power diesel generators at remote industrial, military and village sites. In the long term, Altaeros plans to scale up the technology to reduce costs in the offshore wind market.
“For decades, wind turbines have required cranes and huge towers to lift a just few hundred feet off the ground, where winds can be slow and gusty,” explained Altaeros CEO Ben Glass, the inventor of the AWT. “We are excited to demonstrate that modern inflatable materials can lift wind turbines into more powerful winds almost everywhere – with a platform that is cost-competitive and easy to set up from a shipping container.”
The AWT uses a helium-filled, inflatable shell to ascend to high altitudes, where winds are more consistent and over five times stronger than those that buffet traditional tower-mounted turbines. Strong tethers hold the AWT steady and send electricity down to the ground.
The lifting technology is adapted from aerostats, industrial cousins of passenger blimps that for decades have lifted heavy communications and radar equipment into the air for long periods of time. Aerostats are rated to survive hurricane-level winds and have safety features that ensure a slow descent to the ground.
The emerging airborne or “high altitude” wind sector was recently featured on the cover of the March 2011 issue of Popular Mechanics. In December 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released draft guidelines allowing the new class of airborne wind systems to be sited under existing regulation.
Altaeros Energies is currently seeking partners to join its effort to launch the first commercially available high-altitude wind turbine in the world.
Edited by Braden Becker