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Rotor Kites Move From Toy Novelty to High Tech Power Generation

My-rotor.jpgThe horizontal rotor kite is a very unusual kite.  When seen in the skies at a kite festival it often provokes many comments from spectators.  The horizontal rotor kite has been around for quite some time although its exact date of origin or verified inventor have not been determined.  Rotor kites are usually quite small when compared to other kites found in the skies.  Indeed, the rotor kite seems so much like a child's toy that the vast majority of serious kite hobbyists do not even own one.

The horizontal rotor kite achieves flight through a little known scientific principle, the 'Magnus effect'.  Kite flyers are generally very knowledgeable about the principles of lift and the Bernoulli effect, but often are not as aware of the Magnus effect and how it provides lift to a horizontally spinning object.

Plans to build an original horizontal rotor kite can be taken from a patent drawing or from Anthony's Kite Site, one of the better kite plan web sites on the Internet. Using either balsa wood or styrofoam meat trays, a rotor kite can be constructed in reasonable time.  It will certainly gather attention at most kite festivals since they are not typically seen in the sky.

Skyroplane.jpgLikely, the most famous incarnation of the rotor kite is the "Skyroplane" toy which was first marketed in the early 1950's.  Sporting two rotating wings, the Skyroplane came in a boxed set complete with a wooden flying reel and flying line.  My Skyroplane is still in its original box and is lovingly cared for although it is fifty years old and has enjoyed many hours of flight time. The Skyroplane is still available today and can be reasonably purchased through a number of on-line sources including Jensen Scientific.

Recently, however, the horizontal rotor kite has become a major news maker.  A Canadian firm, Magenn Power Inc. of Kanata, ON, a suburb of Ottawa, announced in November 2005 that they will use tethered kite like devices in an innovative application of technology to create electrical energy.

I first came across this as a news story in the  Thursday, December  29, 2005 issue of The Toronto Star newspaper (hard copy version - Section D: Business (pages D-1 and D-10).  The article is quite lengthy and features some interesting diagrams provided by Magenn Inc.






The company's web site states:

"The Magenn Power Air Rotor System (MARS) is an innovative lighter-than-air tethered device that rotates about a horizontal axis in response to wind, efficiently generating clean renewable electrical energy at a lower cost than all competing systems. This electrical energy is transferred down the tether to a transformer at a ground station and then transferred to the electricity power grid. Helium (an inert non-reactive lighter than air gas) sustains the Air Rotor which ascends to an altitude for best winds and its rotation also causes the Magnus effect. This provides additional lift, keeps the device stabilized, keeps it positioned within a very controlled and restricted location, and causes it to pull up overhead rather than drift downwind on its tether."

The essential difference between a true rotor kite of the variety known to kite builders and the Magenn MARS device is the fact that the horizontal rotor chamber is filled with lighter than air gas to aid in lift.  The rotation of the horizontal rotor will provide some additional lift and generate power in the traditional manner of a spinning generator.

magenn-rotor-2.gif       Wow - the simple rotor kite goes very high tech! 

Magenn states that a one kilowatt portable generator rotor will be available first and could be used to power camp sites in remote locations.  Larger four kw rotor generators could be used to power cottages or in disaster recovery locations.  Even larger 60 metre long rotor units could generate 1.6 megawatts of  power to meet the needs of thirty typical homes.  Gathered together into an energy kite farm, even larger amounts of power could be generated, according to the company.

This is a story that deserves some watching as events continue to develop.


  1. The Magnus effect was fully explained by physicist G. Magnus in 1852.   "On the derivation of projectiles; and on a remarkable phenomenon of rotating bodies." G. Magnus, Memoirs of the Royal Academy, Berlin(1852). English translation in Scientific Memoirs, London (1853)., p. 210. Edited by John Tyndall and William Francis.
  2. Depending on the orientation of the axis of a rotating cylinder (horizontal or vertical) the Magnus effect will either provide lift (horizontal spin dirention) or forward motion (vertical spin direction).
  3. A detailed explanation of the Magnus effect can be found at:  the Magnus Effect page   -and-  NASA's web page on the Lift of a Rotating Cylinder.
  4. While not specifically related to kites, the application of the Magnus effect by German scientist Anton Flettner in 1926 to move a ship with a vertical rotating columnar 'sail' is one of the most unusual applications of the Magnus principle.  Use of the Magnus effect to power a ship was revived by Jacques Cousteau in 1985 with his famous "Alcyone". Both are interesting topics for additional reading.
Posted on Saturday, January 7, 2006 at 09:28PM by Registered CommenterHifliercanada in , | Comments3 Comments | References4 References

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Reader Comments (3)

The statement: "Use of the Magnus effect to power a ship was revived by Jacques Cousteau in 1985 with his famous "Alcyone"..." is a common error the ship uses fat high lift egg shaped airfoils with a trailing section called "turbosails" that employ suction to draw the boundry layer in to delay seperation of the flow. They do not spin but turn only to adjust for wind driction and desired direction of travel. The Magnus effect or a "Flettner Rotor" was first proposed for the project but was rejected when early research data (which calculations were in serious error) was studied indicating it would take enormous power to spin the rotors (which it does not) and there was a safety concern with having a spinning object right on deck which they describe in a paper they presented on the development of the ship. The magnus effect can be many times more powerful than Turbosails.

September 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJake Vandermeide
Thank you Jake for your comment. According to a number of news sources researched, the Cousteau ship's spinning vertical turbosails create an effect that is named in the sources as "the Magnus Effect". Jake's point that the sails are not true Flettner sails is definitely correct. Physicists may argue a bit over whether or not the force developed by a vertical turbosail is the same as a Flettner sail - but the sources that I cited all refer to the effect as "..the Magnus Effect..". I appreciate the detailed comment Jake - it is good to see this and I will continue to dig into this particular aspect of the report.
September 20, 2006 | Registered CommenterHifliercanada
We are interested in a challenge of energy kites vs rotors, as part of the High Altitude Wind Generation Challenge, or HAWG Power for short. We plan to launch our first energy kite on Earth Day 2007, in Tehachapi, CA, which is known for its long history of windpower development. We invite all of the companies to find teams of students/engineers in every region, to build and launch their own energy kites or rotors. We are working with some of the space elevator developers to organize and focus our sights on High-Altitude for Power Generation.

We expect there to be a great deal of interest in High Altitude, once the public understands the long-term goal of using high altitude power to provide greater energy security in every country, because it will allow us to build our own power plants along our borders. The revenue from power plants would allow private enterprise to police our borders, much more efficiently than the federal border patrols. By turning our borders into an industrial zone for power generation, there are long-term benefits to build communities along our borders, and provide power generation to both countries...lots of cheap wind and solar power!! Let us know if there is any interest in our energy kite project by sending us your comments.
March 4, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterVincente Beazel

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