Britain's Nuclear Transport Solutions looks to go greener with AI-powered sails

The system is currently undergoing land tests scheduled to run till 2025.
Ameya Paleja
Artist's rendition on how the sails work
Artist's rendition on how the sails work


Nuclear Transport Solutions (NTS), a division of Britain's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, is looking at high-tech sails to make its fleet of ships greener in the future. NTS has teamed up with Smart Green Shipping (SGS), an engineering firm that enables retrofitting renewable energy systems for commercial ships.

As a concept, sail-based propulsion has been thrown around quite a few times in the past few decades. While cloth-based sails propelled humanity's earliest voyages, in the modern technological era, sails have also transformed into airfoils to maximize thrust.

Although we have yet to see a commercial marine vessel propelled by these new-age sails, the technology is finding applications in modern designs of all-electric vessels, such as a cruise ship built in Norway.

NTS' bid to reduce emissions

As part of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, NTS is involved in transporting spent nuclear fuel over large distances. The nuclear fuel used in countries as far as Japan is brought back securely to Britain to be reprocessed into new fuel rods.

Currently, NTS has a fleet of three diesel-powered ships, and the agency is looking to reduce the carbon emissions from its operations. Typically, using sails can help reduce fuel consumption by 20 percent.

The bigger challenge is retrofitting sails on an existing ship since adding elements can severely impact the available space and the flow of operations. To minimize issues arising from the retrofit, NTS has teamed up with SGS for its expertise.

The Fastrig system

The Fastrig system consists of airfoils, like those found on an airplane, that serve as sails. The sails are mounted in sets on the ship deck, with one part attached to the mast while the other hinging off the first.

With advancements in technology, artificial intelligence (AI) can now be used to set the angle of these sails to maximize the propulsion that can be achieved using the sails.

Given that the vessel has gear, such as cranes, needed to load and offload its cargo, the Fastrig system can neatly fold away on the deck to facilitate smooth operations when the vessel is docked.

The project is undergoing land trials where technical, commercial, and environmental assessments will be conducted until March 2025. SGS is also developing a test center in Scotland to gather safety, technical, and performance data for future sails installation.

"Our motivation is to reduce vessel emissions whilst maintaining our high performance and critical delivery schedules," said Andy Milling, Marine Manager at NTS in a press release. "SGS has convened a group of highly experienced technical and commercial organizations to deliver the project and it’s exciting to see how we will implement this technology with safety, security, and reliability remain our top priorities."