What Energy Powers Kites?

What energy powers kites?

Kites are tethered flying objects that utilize aerodynamic lift generated by the wind passing over a lifting surface. The earliest evidence of kite flying dates back over 2,800 years to ancient China, where materials like silk, bamboo and wood were used to construct simple kites. Over the centuries, kites spread around the world and became important for recreational and scientific purposes. Today, innovative modern kite designs continue to push the boundaries of flight.

When it comes to powering kites, the wind itself is the primary energy source. However, there are also creative ways to generate energy for kites using other power sources like human power, electricity and chemical reactions. This article will explore the various types of energy that can be utilized to power kites, from traditional wind power to more unconventional methods.

Wind Energy

Wind provides the primary source of energy for most kites. As wind blows across the surface of the kite, it generates lift and drag forces that allow the kite to gain altitude and move through the air (https://skysails-power.com/how-power-kites-work/). The curvature of the kite’s wing shape combined with its angle of attack to the wind creates an area of low pressure above the wing and high pressure below it. This pressure differential generates an upward lifting force that opposes the weight of the kite and allows it to rise. At the same time, the drag generated by the wind pushing against the kite produces a pulling force that allows the kite to move forwards. By skillfully maneuvering the kite via the flying lines, kite flyers can harness these wind-generated lift and drag forces to capture the power of the wind.

Human Power

Some kites are designed to be powered by human movement rather than natural wind power. These human-powered kites allow people to propel and control the kite through running, jumping, swimming, or other athletic motions.

One example is kite surfing, where the kite surfer harnesses the power of the wind while using a board and their own momentum to control the kite across the water. As described in Man Lifting Kite: Most Up-to-Date Encyclopedia, recreational human-powered kites gradually gained popularity throughout the late 20th century, spreading across multiple sports.

Another type of human-powered kite is designed for racing and performance. Pilots run to generate speed and lift, making the kite airborne. These high-performance kites allow pilots to soar and maneuver above crowds. As mentioned in China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh, “In the world of Zhang, the new charioteers are human-powered kites, racing above New York City in a brief grab at glory.”

With innovative design and athletic skill, kites can utilize human power as an alternative or supplement to wind. This allows for greater control, speed, and maneuverability.

Electrical Power

Some modern kites utilize electrical power from batteries or motors for propulsion. For example, the AWE Makani kite uses eight battery-powered motors and onboard computers to autonomously launch, fly, and land itself (Source). This allows the kite to generate electricity by flying in a circular pattern and transmitting the power down a tether to a ground station. Companies like SkySails also use small electric auxiliary propulsion units to launch their large cargo-towing kites from ships.

Potential Energy

One of the most common ways kites are powered is through potential energy. Potential energy is stored energy that objects possess due to their height or position. For kites, it is the potential energy resulting from their height above the ground that allows them to fly and soar.

As a kite ascends higher into the sky, it gains gravitational potential energy. This potential energy can then be converted into kinetic energy – energy of motion. When the kite glides or soars through the air, it is the release of its potential energy that powers its flight. No additional energy input is needed.

Kites can utilize wind lift to reach heights where they have stored up sufficient potential energy to then glide without powered flight. This is how kites are able to remain aloft for long periods through soaring flight. The kite will alternately soar – converting potential energy into motion – and then climb again using wind power, storing up more potential energy for the next glide.

The key takeaway is that the potential energy resulting from a kite’s height above the ground is a major way kites are powered. By understanding potential energy and soaring flight, kite enthusiasts can better harness the free power source of gravity and height for extended kite gliding and soaring.

Chemical Reaction

Some kites utilize chemical reactions to generate hot air or gas that provides the lift and buoyancy to power the kite’s flight. This works through a process called thermal updraft, in which a heat source warms the air inside the kite, making it less dense than the surrounding cooler air. As the warm air rises, cooler air rushes in to take its place. This creates an upward draft that lifts the kite up.

One type of kite that uses this method is the hot air kite. These kites have an opening at the bottom where a small fuel source like a candle or alcohol burner heats the air. The warmth makes the air expand inside the enclosed kite, giving it lift. Some hot air kites rely on the heating of air inside the kite, while others fill an interior bladder with hot air or gas like helium.

Another example is sky lanterns, which use the heat from a small flame to fill a paper lantern with warm air. The lantern rises until the flame goes out and the air cools. Chemical-powered kites allow fliers to generate continuous lift without relying on wind, enabling high and stable flight.

Solar Power

One innovative way that solar power is being used for kites is through photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight directly into electricity. Kite manufacturers and researchers have begun embedding thin, lightweight solar panels into the surface of kites.

For example, in 2017 the artist Tomás Saraceno presented an art installation called “Aerocene” which featured two large-scale solar powered kites at the Antarctic Biennale. The kites were designed with flexible solar panels that captured energy from the sun during flight (“I Chilled With Penguins and an Ice-Preserving Bot in Antarctica,” Vice, 2017).

Other pioneers like Makani Power (now owned by Google) have developed prototype kites called SkySails that are fitted with solar arrays. As the kite flies autonomously in the sky, the solar panels generate renewable electricity that is transmitted down the tether to a ground station.

These solar-powered kites demonstrate the potential for airborne wind energy using photovoltaic materials. The goal is to develop flying power plants that can continuously harvest solar irradiation and wind to produce clean energy.

Kinetic Energy

Kites can harness kinetic energy from the motion of vehicles on land or water to generate power. This works through a mechanism that converts the kinetic energy of the moving vehicle into a pulling force on the kite ropes, which lifts the kite. The motion and traction created helps keep the kite flying, without the need for wind.

On land, buggies, mountain boards, and other traction kite vehicles are designed to convert the kinetic energy from rolling along the ground into lift for the kite. The rider steers the buggy to build up speed, and the traction system redirects that motion into pulling force on the kite lines. This allows the kite to stay aloft even without wind. Riders can actually travel faster than the wind this way by continuously generating motion to power the kite.

Similarly, kites can be towed behind moving boats to harness the kinetic energy of the vessel. Special kite tails convert the boat’s forward momentum into lift to keep the kite in the air. This works even when there is little to no wind. The faster the boat travels, the more power is available to generate traction and keep the kite flying behind the boat.

So kinetic energy from vehicles on land or water can be utilized to generate force to power kites. This makes it possible to fly kites in low wind by converting motion into the energy needed for traction and lift.

Nuclear Power

Nuclear power is an extremely rare and hypothetical energy source for powering kites. The concept involves using nuclear fission or fusion to generate electricity that could power motors and enable long flight times. However, nuclear-powered aircraft and vehicles have only ever been experimental demonstrations, not consumer products.

One example was the Convair NB-36H, an experimental nuclear-powered aircraft developed by the US Air Force in the 1950s. It had a nuclear reactor installed in the plane to power jet engines, but the program was cancelled before an actual flight took place [1].

Nuclear power for kites would likely involve miniaturizing a nuclear reactor to fit onboard and generate electricity. However, this introduces massive engineering challenges, safety concerns, and regulatory restrictions. Radioactive shielding and fail-safes would be critical. Any crash or damage to the kite could risk radioactive contamination. Overall, nuclear-powered kites are an extreme concept not viable for recreational or commercial use.


In summary, there are a variety of energy sources that can power kites. The most common is wind energy, which uses the natural power of wind to propel kites through the sky. Kites designed to harness wind energy have rotors and generators attached which convert the kinetic energy of the wind into electricity. Human power in the form of manually flying the kite is another traditional way to power kites. More recent technological innovations allow kites to be powered by stored potential energy, chemical reactions, electricity, solar power, kinetic energy from motion, and in theory, even nuclear power. While wind energy remains the most prevalent and practical way to power kites thus far, ongoing research and development may uncover new ways to utilize kites to generate clean energy through leveraging other energy sources. The physics of kite flight has provided the opportunity for kites to be used beyond recreation, but as tools for renewable power generation.

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