AWESCO: Airborne Wind Energy System Modelling, Control and Optimisation
REACH: Resource Efficient Automatic Conversion of High-Altitude Wind

After coordinating two H2020 projects over the past four years, Roland Schmehl will be glad to be able to concentrate on other things for a while. Nevertheless, he is pleased with what has been achieved: “AWESCO and REACH have really put airborne wind energy on the map as a scientific subject and have also brought the technology close to commercialisation.”

AWESCO: Airborne Wind Energy System Modelling, Control and Optimisation

REACH: Resource Efficient Automatic Conversion of High-Altitude Wind

As opposed to conventional wind turbines, airborne wind energy is based on the use of flying devices– kites – to generate wind energy. Such kites can reach altitudes of up to 1000 metres, far beyond the limit of conventional wind turbines – altitudes where winds are generally stronger and more stable. Add to that the flexibility of a moveable system and the little material needed for a kite in comparison to a turbine, and it is easy to see the attraction of airborne wind energy. “With this technology we want to and help solve the energy problem and address climate change”, says Associate Professor Roland Schmehl, who heads the airborne wind energy research group at the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering.

Three attempts needed

Back in 2012, AWE research was gaining traction around the world, but it also needed financing. “Around that time our nationally funded research project was coming to an end. We had successfully demonstrated an airborne wind energy system to the public at the Maasvlakte II in Rotterdam that year, but we still had to address a lot of issues”, remembers Schmehl. A big boost to the research was the award of an Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network, or ITN, a joint research training and doctoral scheme totalling 3 million euros, funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 framework programme. “It was our third attempt at getting this”, says Schmehl, who coordinated the last two attempts. “It is a very competitive call, so we needed those three trials to shape the content and raise the quality of the proposal.”

Strong community and research infrastructure

In AWESCO,fourteen PhD students researched how to make airborne wind energy systems working safely, reliably and automatically. They studied among others the interplay of structural dynamics, aerodynamics and flight dynamics of kite systems, the optimization of flight path control, launching and landing, and the interaction with the electricity network. The outcomes included several software simulations that are now available in open source. “We also organised summer and winter schools, specialised workshops and internal research reviews every year, that turned into two-day symposia with all PhD students presenting.” The network meetings included two international conferences held in Delft in 2015 and in Freiburg in 2017.

Benefits of being part of the network

The original consortium, led by TU Delft, included University of Freiburg, Chalmers University of Technology, University of Leuven, Technical University of Munich, University of Limerick, ETH Zurich, EPFL, Ampyx Power, Skysails, Xsens and Enerkíte. Yet the attraction of the subject was such, that the number of associated partners eventually equalled that of the funded partners. “Having direct access to the growing pool of knowledge in this field was a key motivating factor for associate partners to join. At the same time, the benefit for AWESCO was that researchers could be seconded to these associated partners, which meant they could gain experience in industry, or in airborne wind energy related subjects that were not core subjects in AWESCO.”

Much needed financial injection

Came the award of the ITN network as a pleasant surprise, Schmehl was over the moon to receive funding for the REACHproject in 2015. “It gave us a much-needed financial injection into de commercial development of this technology, that we had been working on in Delft for over a decade.” After the successful demonstration in 2012, Schmehl had found a private sponsor to help commercialise kite power, but that source dried up after a few years. The 2.7 million euro funding, supplemented by 1 million euro of in-kind partner contributions, is part of the Fast Track to Innovation (FTI) programme, supporting close-to-the-market innovation activities. The ‘fast track’ did what it said on the label: “We set up spin-off company Kitepower BV,and after three years we had a working prototype of a 100 kW pumping kite power system and were able to conduct an endurance test with it.”

First commercial system in 2019?

Kitepower BV plans to sell its first commercial system with a launching customer by the end of this year, and produce small series by 2020/21. With wind park developer Hendrik Hutting now on board as an investor and member of the advisory board, continuity in the development seems guaranteed. Schmehl has also co-founded Airborne Wind Europe, an association that represents the interests of the airborne wind energy industry as well as academia. Schmehl credits the synergy of both projects to the current success. “On the one hand, we could serve the entire scientific community through the doctoral training network, on the other hand we could focus on one technology and build on that”,he says.“The value for TU Delft is immense: a doctoral training network and an industrial development project both connected to the same research group, as well as a leading in-house spin-off company that is now developing and operating our test facility.”

Being at the centre of developments

Schmehl likes the role of coordinator. “I enjoy being at the centre of these developments; I often get a call if anyone wants to know anything about airborne wind energy, because of the many contacts I was able to build up over the years.” Practically speaking, he had to organise the doctoral training events, among other things. “Someone has to have responsibility, but I always had local partners helping me with the organisation”, Schmehl says. Within TU Delft, the doctoral training took some negotiation, as the university has its own Graduate School (GS). “AWESCO started not too long after the setup of the Graduate School, so this was all relatively new, and rules were changing. Our doctoral education included specialised events, but also many transferable skills like presentation, academic writing or project management. In the end, we agreed that AWESCO would supersede the GS doctoral education. Our PhD students eventually had to attend only the introductory PhD Start-up at TU Delft, which makes perfect sense.”

Occasional compromise needed

As coordinator, he also has to collect all output and report to the EU. “All in all, it does take up a lot of time”, Schmehl says. “There is not just the documentation effort, but your mind is also occupied with the larger project and the people involved. That comes on top of your other responsibilities.” That means the occasional compromise, e.g. Schmehl still has to obtain the University Teaching Qualification, commonly referred to by its Dutch abbreviation BKO. With REACH finishing in September, he hopes to be able to focus on that shortly. “Although we do have several other projects in the pipeline, so if a major one is granted, I may be pressed for time again.”

Students are inspired by this emerging technology

Schmehl stresses the amount of support he has received over the years. “I had, among others, excellent help from Dr Ni Yan, who was assigned as project manager to AWESCO by the Valorisation Centre”, he says. Airborne wind energy is also very much a story of students. “We have had many students joining us from all over the world who were inspired to work on this emerging technology and help make it a success.” One of them stands out: Johannes Peschel, now co-founder and CEO of Kitepower BV. “Johannes is a TU Berlin graduate. He first came to Delft as an exchange student in 2012, and has played a big part in our achievements so far. In REACH he also carries a large part of the project work load; I am the coordinator, and he and his team do most of the work.”

If you want to make a difference, do it

Despite all the help, being coordinator still takes a lot of effort and time. Schmehl nevertheless recommends taking on the role: “I can only advise my colleagues to do it. Although I have been through a phase were I was about to give up”, he admits. “It is frustrating to receive a couple of rejections every year for funding applications that you have spent many weeks on, and a lot of energy. Unfortunately, that is part of scientific life.” He counsels researchers not to put too much hope in the idea they will succeed on first application. “Refine your proposal in several efforts, maybe change some of the partners that were not the best choice. But if you really want to make a change with your research, you should do it.” And making a difference, is what airborne wind energy is all about.

‘REACH gave us a much-needed financial injection into de commercial development of this technology, that we had been working on in Delft for over a decade.’
'Refine your proposal in several efforts, maybe change some of the partners that were not the best choice. But if you really want to make a change with your research, you should do it'

Roland Schmehl

‘Airborne wind energy is a very photogenic subject’