Raleigh-based Windlift isn’t your traditional wind energy company. Instead of selling customary wind turbines, Windlift thinks outside of the box by producing airborne wind energy power through the use of an aircraft or drone.
This early stage startup is able to do this by having a small, unmanned aircraft fly up to 400 feet and tethering it to a mobile trailer. The aircraft generates electricity through its wings and the electricity moves through the tether into the trailer, which operates as a mobile ground station. The mobile trailer ground station includes a battery system and an optional diesel generator for industrial applications. CEO Frank Segal explained that the aircraft picks up wind energy like a kite and that it can produce up to 15 kilowatts per unit in almost any weather condition.
Windlift’s APG (Airborne Power Generation) Systems operate like the blade of a wind turbine, but without the tower and supporting infrastructure. As a result, Windlift’s APG Systems don’t produce as much energy per unit as a wind turbine, but deployed in a farm it can capture the same energy of a wind turbine with less than 10 percent of the material and at far less cost. It also operates indefinitely, is fully autonomous in flight and operation, can operate five years without maintenance and is operational in 30 minutes or less.
Although Windlift is still in its prototype phase, the company hopes to be available commercially in the next couple of years. Segal said that once the company starts selling to the public, he expects Windilft to manufacture the small aircraft/drones, the tether and trailer. Initially, Windlift’s clients will be the military and utility developers.
“This is very new emerging technology,” Segal said. “Very few companies are working on this type of wind energy and we’re one of them.”
Windlift also has a strong partnership with the military and has received about $4 million in funding from the military and various grant programs, in addition to about $400,000 in funding from private investment. Segal said that Windlift is currently working with the Marine Corps and that generally the military often works with smaller companies like Windlift to help provide innovative solutions, since smaller businesses typically innovate faster.
“The military provides funding to help us research, develop and prototype so that they can use that technology in the field,” Segal said.
Segal explained that the company was originally founded in 2006 by Chief Scientific Officer Rob Creighton in Wisconsin. Creighton was inspired to start Windlift after going to a wind energy conference and realizing that this area of energy would be much more efficient if the cost could be lowered. After some research, Creighton realized that airborne wind would be the lowest-cost form of energy because it can produce the same amount of electricity with just a fraction of the material, compared to wind turbines and solar energy.
Creighton then moved the company to North Carolina in the past couple of years because of North Carolina’s coastal region and the available resources that are here for wind energy.
“North Carolina is such a great state for wind energy,” Segal said. “Off the coast of North Carolina, there are vast untouched wind energy resources. And it has a long coastline that would provide for future offshore wind farms.”