For over two millennia, the marine industry has been a focal point of human innovation. This was by necessity; innovations in aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, navigation, system resiliency, space optimization and others have all improved crew health and survival rates, sped global trade and generally helped ensure we didn’t sail off the edge of the earth.

Marine systems have been proven via relentless iteration to satisfy society’s desire for adventure, exploration and expansion. They have taken us to the farthest reaches of our known world and brought us safely back again.

Custom-built yachts have always been a luxury of the wealthy. They likely always will be. Boat-building is a bespoke industry that emphasizes individuality and craftsmanship over scale and affordability. Yet luxury and premium products have an incredibly important role to play in our rapidly changing world. A startling amount of innovation occurs when price is no object and there is total independence to dream big.

Today, the technical approaches proven by boat builders in the marine industry are finding their way into how our homes are wired, how we control our infrastructure, and how the next evolution of the energy grid should be deployed. As has always been true, boat builders are navigating us into the future.

A system in isolation: Living well and going fast in the middle of the ocean

A boat-builder’s task is to blend cutting-edge technology and traditional craftsmanship into a package that ensures both safety and survival at sea. Ocean-going yachts are expected to be islands of resiliency and security, often for long periods in extreme weather, all while simultaneously delivering the creature comforts of home. This is not just about survival during a storm; it is about living well in a complex set of environments.

Part of living well on the ocean is having intimate control of the infrastructure and support systems within which you exist. All inputs are carefully measured (energy, water, food, etc.), while all consumption is monitored and optimized. Over longer trips at sea, without the benefit of land-based support, conservation of resources is a prime directive. Resiliency is built into every system. Any custom boat is an island of complexity operating at the command of the operator. In a world where our systems are increasingly global and feel out of our control, life on a boat is exactly the opposite. 

The energy production and management systems architecture highlights how effective this is. As one GTM reader so aptly put it:

“Conservation is a paramount interest living afloat. Energy is very carefully conserved, battery voltages are constantly checked and replenished, and any unused services are switched off at the breaker. You live in constant and full awareness of your interplay with the environment around you and you preserve and minimise in as many measures. It is simple and remarkably easy how it can be accomplished...

Most custom boats have a dynamic network of energy components they must manage at any given time. Combined AC and DC energy infrastructure allows for systemic optimization depending upon need. Each vessel seamlessly integrates a multitude of energy production methods -- from the engine via an alternator, to diesel generators,solar wind, hydro, and even fuel cells.  The system absorbs and stores this production on a local level, typically through a large battery bank. 

Yachts are even designed to interact with the land-based infrastructure by plugging into the grid when at the dock.

Consider the holistic design here: solar and wind energy produced on a distributed/local level; a diesel backup generator that only goes on when it is judged to maximize efficiency; the ability to plug into a larger interconnected grid as either a consumer or a producer; on-site battery storage to handle the times when energy isn’t being produced or energy networks are compromised; and effective monitoring that optimizes consumption and enables a better understanding of actual energy usage in real time. The systems architecture that has been built into boats for 50 years is indeed the smart home of the future. 

The shifting of global infrastructure design: Weathering the storm

Global infrastructure for delivering services like energy and water is reliant upon designs developed over a century ago. Cutting-edge at the dawn of the industrial revolution, it is fundamentally unsustainable under current conditions. In the U.S., infrastructure is overtaxed by population growth, and in need of significant maintenance due to age. Yet increasingly, the delta between the expense of improving existing infrastructure and the price communities are able to pay for delivered services does not add up to financial sustainability. This is true not only in this country, but around the world.

In addition to the expense, these systems are vulnerable. Large centralized production delivered through a unidirectional infrastructure worked in the past, but is increasingly at risk of failure. Systems have grown brittle and vulnerable to collapse. In 2015, 80 percent of Pakistan (140 million people) lost power when a single transmission line was attacked. While an extreme example, outages for large populations happen with frequency across the world on a daily basis. 

But at this very moment, right under our noses, new approaches to systems design are being used to deliver services that are scalable, resilient, and improve sustainability (both financially and environmentally). We have entered the age of the distributed system, and it is remaking the world as we know it.

Distributed systems architecture is not new. Its beginnings are found in the 1960s when ARPANet was designed to move our data infrastructure away from a single, centralized and unidirectional network, to a more robust, scalable and resilient architecture built around many nimble, self-sufficient networks seamlessly interconnected to make up the whole. Today we call this the internet. 

While the internet was built for data delivery, the future of all global infrastructure resembles this model. In the energy industry, this is driving a rise in microgrid deployment globally. Microgrids represent the most nimble and scalable way to deploy energy delivery systems. While most are currently islanded, they are often designed to interconnect should the larger grid arrive.

As a result, regional grid infrastructure will increasingly look much more like a series of seamlessly interconnected local networks that make up the whole. Systemic intelligence and decision-making will be pushed to the edges of the network, breaking away from singular central control points that can be compromised. This is what is known as a “system of systems” approach.

A system of systems: The global infrastructure “raft up”

The marine industry can be leveraged for the next generation of utility-scale “system of systems” development as well. Islanded infrastructure is ideal in remote areas, but human systems are not traditionally independent. We are social, interconnected animals and our approach to infrastructure reflects our need for community on some basic level. Marine systems architecture has always bridged the gap between islanded networks of energy production and interconnection to a larger grid. In fact, the industry’s approaches to energy management already inform much of the emerging microgrid and nanogrid design.

To put a distributed energy grid in context, imagine a single boat as a small, localized network of energy production and storage. It produces energy for its own community’s needs from a range of inputs, storing any capacity for long-term usage.

Four of those boats then “raft up,” or tie together, and their systems interconnect. Suddenly we are no longer talking about an isolated boat on the far side of the world, but instead we have a small network of systems -- a community of independent, yet simultaneously shared resources. Now imagine a million boats rafted together and spanning the entire East Coast -- independent, yet simultaneously interconnected and transferring resources across a regional network. This is the future of global infrastructure. 

Remaking the systems of the world is no easy task. It will take time, a significant amount of continued innovation, and massive infrastructure investment by a variety of stakeholders. Yet it has the potential to employ millions of people, fundamentally improve human society, and reduce our overall impact on this planet. 

Distributed systems architecture has even begun to inform safety, survival and sustainable community beyond this planet and into the unknown reaches of our imagination. As has been true since the beginning of time, our ships, our boats, and even our yachts will serve as the backbone humanity’s exploration and expansion into the future.  

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Zach Lyman is a managing partner at Reluminati, a collaborative network of entrepreneurs, designers, engineers, scientists and adventurers.