COLUMN: My crystal ball [The Bow Wave]

Crystal ball might be a bit strong, perhaps “what I reckon stands a good chance of happening” is a more accurate title. That being said, I’ve decided to put finger to keyboard and make a list of things or events that are likely to occur during 2018. Like most people who ever attempt to predict the future I’ll make no effort in 12 months time to validate my claims.

The first commercially viable electric workboat

The important words here are “commercially viable” and “electric” meaning that a taxpayer subsidised tourist boat doesn’t count and neither does a hybrid that utilises electric power for only a fraction of its operational life.

I’m thinking most likely of a fish farm support vessel that operates relatively close to home and probably spends a fair portion of its working day tied up to fish pens or strings of oysters and mussels. The kind of vessel I have in mind would be up to approximately 10 metres in length and may have a crane or winch that is either electrically operated or utilises an electro-hydraulic power pack.

Could this be electrified?

A distant possibility for the first all-electric work boat is a tug and barge combination in a pusher-type arrangement where the barge carries a large bank of batteries in addition to those carried on the tug. When the tug goes to push the barge a power cable is connected between the two. The power cable would obviously require a quick release of some sort for emergency disconnections. Upon arriving at their destination the barge would plug into shore power for charging whilst unloading and the tug would connect to a freshly charged and unloaded barge for the return journey.

A breakthrough in the production of marine algae biofuel

Algae-based biofuels have been on the horizon for the last few years but the drop in oil prices caused a lot of the investment to dry up. A renewed push to reduce CO2 emissions has seen a revival in interest in the technology and I expect a number of shelved projects to be looked at again.

One project in particular that I think is ripe for reassessment is the OMEGA project that was run by NASA several years ago. An acronym for “offshore membrane enclosures for growing algae”, OMEGA was a system of bags made of special membranes into which a small amount of algae was introduced. These membrane bags would allow water, air and sunlight to pass through them which would in turn cause the algae to grow and multiply. Once the bags are filled with algae they are towed to shore and the algae is harvested to processed into biofuel or animal feed.

I find OMEGA attractive because it is designed to be situated around the coast in areas where runoff occurs. In these locations the algae would use fertilisers and other pollutants as a food source that would otherwise flow into the ocean and cause uncontained algal blooms and dead zones. In this way OMEGA is also cleaning the oceans.

First commercial operation of offshore (out of sight of land) fish farms

A number of enterprises have been working on moving fish farming into offshore waters with the benefits of cleaner waters on fish health well understood. The problem so far seems to have been a combination of being able to produce holding pens that can survive in the open ocean and the logistics of managing such an operation profitably.

Aquapod offshore fish farm. Photo: InnovaSea

InnovaSea has been testing its Aquapod system around the globe for a number of years and appears to be working the kinks out of the design. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that this is the year that offshore aquaculture really takes off.

First operational use of a laser to shoot down a missile or warn off a pirate/small boat attacker

This one is probably a bit of a stretch and if in 12 months I was to assess whether or not this prediction came true I would probably be inclined to include the use of lasers on land as well.

Israel has been looking at lasers to defend against rocket attacks as a means of saving money given that $1 of diesel to generate the electricity is a quite attractive alternative to launching a $40,000 missile interceptor. Since US President Trump has decided to stir the hornet’s nest and declare US recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital perhaps the missile defences may get tested in the coming months.

As far as naval deployments of lasers, the US Navy has recently retired the USS Ponce, an amphibious warfare ship that I wrote about last month, which leaves the US Navy “laser free”. Perhaps not for long however as the navy has requested funding for further laser projects in its 2018 funding plan which includes at-sea testing. The plan doesn’t specify whether or not another operational deployment is on the cards as yet but it is a possibility.

At this point I’d also like to put out a call of sorts for any readers who may have read in my previous columns about the consumer underwater drones now on the market and decided to go ahead and purchase one. If any of you have gathered some footage of your drone inspecting a ship hull or monitoring for sharks in a fish farm or any other interesting work please send through details.

Feel free to contact me at [email protected]

Andrew Baird

Experienced geologist and seabed mining entrepreneur, Andrew reviews cutting edge technology from around the world across a wide spectrum of industries, and considers their potential applications in the work boat world.