Excergo - the future’s battery-run ships will be remote controlled

The future’s battery-run ships will be remote controlled

Marine solutions provider Wärtsilä this week unveiled what could become the ship of tomorrow, drawing inspiration for the design from potentially disruptive technology and trends, as well as the wish lists of its cautious clients.

Text: Campbell Black Photo: Wärtsilä

Despite more than 180 years of marine expertise, Wärtsilä knows it can’t rest on its laurels. That’s why the company ‘disruption disrupters’ have been busy at work, identifying new opportunities for the notoriously conservative marine industry, where ships sail for decades and contracts run for almost as long. The idea is to be first out offering a vision of the future – disrupt the disruption.

“If you don’t challenge your own business model, it will die,” says Willie Wågen, Director, Market Innovation, Wärtsilä Marine Solutions. “To win the battle, you have to be agile; you have to look at the trends, and you have to predict what’s possible from a technical standpoint.”

Hence Wärtsilä’s brainchild the EXERGO, emerged. The beautifully conceived ship design encapsulates all the most pertinent trends that could be applied within the marine industry. She will run on batteries and be emissions- and noise-free, and be manned by a slimmed-down crew. The operator can check-in from afar, through a streamlined and user-friendly interface, to make sure that the vessel operation is as safe, cheap and clean as it can be.

So what of this term ‘disruption’? Most of us are well acquainted with it already. Even though we may not have put a face to the name, consumers cause disruptions when we vote with our wallets (and smartphones) for which new technologies and services will survive the high-mortality start-up years.

Industries famously ‘disrupted’ are taxis (Uber), hotels (Airbnb) and, of course, looking back, air travel (Ryanair and EasyJet). These disruptions cause social waves, both positive (happy customers) and negative (unhappy cab drivers and hoteliers, for example). They can also cause regulatory headaches in the near-term. But most of all, they soon morph into the new normal of the industry they have disrupted.

In envisioning the EXERGO, the Wärtsilä team not only looked at overarching market trends – the sharing economy and robotics among them – but also listened to the wishes and fears of its many marine-industry clients. Many noted that their captains all have their own ideas about how to steer a ship but that it may not always be the best, cheapest or safest way. Technology might prove to be the most cutthroat mutineer of them all – the future could rewrite the captain’s role entirely.

“It’s an uncomfortable truth,” says Egil Hystad, General Manager, Market Innovation, Wärtsilä Marine Solutions, who cited a study by MIT that found driverless cars could cut road accidents by 95% by removing human error and temperament. “It’s similar for ships.”

And it’s not just a question of safety. It also offers ship owners and operators a cleaner and cheaper deal. The EXERGO’s control system gives continuous feedback on how to steer the ship, through choppy waters or calm seas, in the most energy efficient way. That allows the operator to make the most of the fuel, while also not putting an undue strain on the equipment. Wear and tear costs money, after all.

The fuel, or energy source, also plays a huge role because, in many parts of the world, especially where emission-control areas (ECAs) are in force, pollution is a big no-no. Using batteries to store energy also offers the advantage of being silent: a great asset in busy city harbours or near sensitive animal populations.

Steering a clean and silent ship from shore could thus soon be the new norm. The Wärtsilä team believes the EXERGO, or key components of its design, could well traverse the oceans within a decade. And the lakes, because ocean shipping isn’t the only application – ferries too, and any other marine vessel.

The Wärtsilä team admits, however, and points out that it’s the nature of a disruption to not be easily predicted, that they may not have spotted the one big reform that will turn the industry on its head.

“Essentially we have to question everything from the design to the fuel,” says Hystad. “How we used to build ships is no longer valid, and we have to think differently from the keel to the bridge.”

“And when it comes to fuel,” Wågen says, “we have to assume – as batteries and solar cells become increasingly powerful – that energy will be cheap, readily available, and easy to store, and that’s what we need to prepare for.”

“The one who doesn’t ride the wave will drown,” Wågen adds.

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