Almost 3,000 years old, kite technology is still being put to a large number of recreational, commercial, and military uses today.
Kites are Airplanes
Kites are really tethered gliders. Think about it. Just like a regular airplane they need to have lift, thrust, stability, and control.
The Wright brothers flew their early airplane designs as kites to test their ideas. Only after they were happy with the amount of lift and stability did they build bigger versions capable of carrying a human being.
I had never heard of these before, but powered model airplanes are sometimes flown as kites. They are called captive planes. The kite line permits a limited type of steering.
I do not know if it is right to call them kites, but I have seen free flight gliders flown with long lines hanging down. Periodically, the pilot on the ground tugs on the line to steer the glider towards lift.
Experimental helicopter-like tethered platforms have been built over the years. They have served the same purpose as tethered balloons, except that they can be deployed very quickly. Think of them as large free-flight quadcopters.
In 1918 and in 1933 two different experiments to use these aerial platforms as military observation posts were tried. One used rotary engines, the other electric motors that were supplied power up from the ground by a three-phase power cable. Both of the experiments were failures, but it seems to me that they could have gotten them to work with more research.
A modern variation on the concept was created by Israel Aerospace Industries. Their Electric Tethered Observation Platform (ETOP) should look extremely familiar to quadcopter enthusiasts. Instead of sending a person up, this one carries video cameras.
Airborne Wind Turbines
How about using a kite as a virtual wind turbine for generating electricity? Away from the ground the wind speed is higher and the air is a lot smoother. A company called KiteGen Research is working on exactly such a product. The idea is to configure the kite so that it moves in either a circle or a figure eight and to convert that rotating power into electricity.
ERC Highwind is also working to tackle the problem. The fact that there are two companies working to solve the same problem is a great sign. It means to me that there is enough funding going into the research. With enough interest, it might just become practical one day.
Flying kites for fun is alive and well, thank you very much. A year ago an attempt at breaking the world record for flying the largest kite had to be called off because of high winds. The kite had a wingspan of 180 feet (55 m).
The recreational kite flying magazine KiteLife runs an excellent website. It has a vast collection of archived back issues of KiteLife and other related magazines. They all appear to be freely accessible over the Internet. They also have a massive free collection of pictures and videos. It is extremely easy to spend many hours visiting this wonderful website.
All of this brings me to Ray, who is the reason why I started looking into kites in the first place. You see, Ray is a bit of a legend in the recreational kite world. For over 20 years he has been traveling extensively demonstrating his superb kite flying skills.
His specialty is to fly three stunt kites at the same time. Each kite uses two lines to allow for steering left and right. He holds one kite in each hand and the third kite is tied to his waist. I kid you not. When I first saw the three kites flying in a video, I really thought it was three different people controlling them. The movements looked too precise to be done any other way.
Do not be insulted the next time someone tells you to go fly a kite. This is a field filled with interesting research and opportunities. Just say, thank you, I think I will go and do just that!