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Can Airbags Keep Damaged Ships Afloat Long Enough to Save Lives and Cargo?

Innovative rapidly inflating balloon technology could keep damaged ships afloat. But more fine-tuning needs to be done and there are some concerns about reliability.

Imagine if after a ship accident, balloons popped up like car airbags to keep the disabled vessel upright and afloat. This would help to avoid pollution of seas and beaches and gain valuable time for evacuation. Now, the EU-funded project SuSy, completed in 2013, have turned such an idea into a proof of concept. The project developed a proposal to install inflatables on ships including a system to blow them up very rapidly.

The proof of concept culminated in 2013 with a demonstration of the idea on a model bottom of a medium-sized tanker in the port of Chalkida, in Greece. "Our challenge was to produce enormous amounts of gas from small cartridges which is quickly released into inflatables," describes project partner Reinhard Ahlers, managing director of Balance, a maritime consultancy in Bremen, Germany.

The technologies used by the project are not new, but the combination is. Kevlar reinforced balloons can be installed anywhere on a ship. Suitable places to install the balloons would be in between double hulls and in ballast water tanks. The gadgets needed to inflate them are taken from submarine rescue systems, based on rapid blow-out devices originally developed for satellite launchers.

However, one expert voices concern at the project's approach. "Given the location of balloons in the double hull, not only will the construction of the ship be much more difficult and costly. But inspection and maintenance will be almost impossible hence these systems will be unreliable," says Egbert Ypma, researcher at the Maritime Research Institute Netherlands in Wageningen, in the Netherlands.

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