Today, I invite you to imagine a wonderful new future for sailors: a technology that delivers cheap and reliable vessel communications with land. Bandwidth high enough for every sailor to enjoy daily video conferencing with their loved ones. I see a possibility for this world, born from the combination of two technologies: wave power and cellular communication.
I need to stop being an engineer for a moment and turn into a dreamer, because I don’t know how to setup a cell phone network. But join me for some simple assumptions, and you will love the results. We can safely assume that any ocean going cell network would certainly use ship transmitters that are far more powerful than you find in your current commercial mobile phone. Let’s assume each cell tower has a range of 250 mi (402 km). And assume the Atlantic ocean is roughly 3716 mi (5980 km) across. Accounting for some overlap, we could establish a full communications network with somewhere between 10 – 20 towers in the ocean! Imagine that, cheap video communication with your loved ones. And all we need are 10 – 20 towers per shipping lane.
Before the critics start, I am clearly making this far too simple. But that is the fun part of imagining a better world. So why not continue by showing how this is a bargain deal. Let’s add up the costs of a floating cell tower. It costs around $150,000 USD to build a cell tower. And we can assume another $3 million USD for the buoy and other items (scientific wild guess). A network of 20 floating cell towers costs in the region of $63 million USD. Expensive? Not when you compare that to the cost of a single satellite. A single satellite costs around $290 million USD! You can buy an entire network of floating cell towers for only 22% the cost of a single satellite. That’s a bargain.
But what could make such a dream possible? We need some way to power the cell tower. Enter Ocean Power Technologies. They make wave energy buoys, targeted at the offshore market. A wave energy buoy can produce sufficient power for a communications tower. (Of course, there are plenty of complications and challenges with such an endeavor.)
Ocean Power Technologies (OPT) have commercially available wave energy buoys. They first started with buoys intended for powering the commercial electric grid, just like wind turbines. But the complexities of offshore technology currently make it impossible to deliver energy at a competitive price. So OPT redirected their efforts to the offshore industry. Power gets generated by their wave energy buoy: PB3. And the cell phone tower uses that power right on site.
OPT hit on a critical change in the concept of a wave energy device. Most of these designs are intended to produce massive amounts of renewable electricity. If you want big energy output, you plan to find the most abundant wave energy possible. And that is where the problems start. It is very difficult to build a buoy that can survive the worst waves out there and still produce efficient power.
Instead, OPT targeted applications for common wave environments. Imagine your typical Beaufort Force 1-3 day. Small, gentle waves. This is the environment where OPT uses their Power Buoy. The common environment also allows OPT to design a single produce that works in most locations on the planet. No customization required for the waves. Their PB3 power buoy operates for up to three years without maintenance. That leads us to a simple three step plan for a game change in vessel communications.
Not sure. I personally know very little about wireless communication. But I do have a fair knowledge of wave energy technology, and a wave buoy could power a cell phone tower. The economics are a different question, and not easily answered.
A better question: is it worth exploring? Imagine that you are a sailor trapped on one of the major trade routes. No sign of land for days. Minimal communication with loved ones. And then suppose someone offered you cheap constant communication, with enough bandwidth for daily video conferencing, all at only 22% of what you paid for a satellite link. How much is that dream worth to you?
I certainly hope this will become a reality one day.
I am not paid by Ocean Power Technologies. I received no compensation from them and I have no internal knowledge of their company strategy. I just think this is an exciting possibility. It is important that we take time to get excited, and remember that boats are awesome!