Sandith Thandasherry and what it takes to run a boat on solar power

This Week in Disruptive Tech | July 29, 2020: A roundup of news and perspectives on how technology is shaping the future, here in India and across the world

N S Ramnath


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  • How to convert your house from grid-powered to solar-powered? Install solar panels, batteries, etc and draw power from the new system rather than the grid. 
  • How to make your car run on CNG instead of petrol or diesel? Now, you can buy a CNG kit for Rs 30-40,000 and install it on your car.

This narrative is so ingrained in everyone's psyche that when, in 2017, Sandith Thandasherry was working on a solar-powered ferry with 75-persons capacity for Kerala’s State Water Transport Department (SWTD), the idea was met with huge resistance. 

His critics said he simply can't build a ferry that big to run on solar.

But, Thandasherry was not merely fitting solar panels and batteries on an existing ferry. They are usually made of wood and steel. He was designing them from scratch. A typical diesel ferry weighed 35 tonnes. By using fibre reinforced plastic and aluminium, he brought down the weight to 17 tonnes. A typical diesel ferry needed 60 kW to run at 6 knots with 75 people on board. By redesigning the shape he reduced the drag so it needed only 20 kW motor power. It worked.

The ferry service was launched in 2017, and in the first year of operation, the ferry, Aditya, travelled a total of 22,500 km carrying 365,000 people across backwaters in  the Vaikom-Thavanakkadavu sector. Recently, it won the Gustave Trouvé Award for Excellence in Electric Boats and Boating. 

The big lesson: for new technology to work, often, you will have to redesign an entire system. 

However, it's not the only lesson. Diesel-powered ferries spew smoke, make noise, cause vibrations, spill fuel into the backwaters. Electric ferries don’t. In the first year of operations, it saved 34,800 litres of diesel. Yet, Kerala’s motivation was not to reduce pollution but to bring down costs. SWTD was making a loss on every trip earlier. Now, the main cost is charging from the grid (60% of the ferry’s power comes from the grid, while the rest comes from solar).  Thandasherry says SWTD has already broken even. 

In hindsight, going solar looks like an obvious idea. Yet, it takes a lot of hard work to make an idea look obvious. Thandasherry had the background to execute it all. (See his blog.) He studied naval engineering at IIT Madras, and worked in the shipping industry for years before starting his own venture. His first foray had him making smaller boats for tourists. Then, it struck him that for solar-powered vehicles to be viable, it should take more people, and operate more frequently. He had to build larger boats for public transport. And that led to Aditya

Now, it’s a well-known fact that cars and roads have an interesting relationship. Better roads attract more cars, and more cars lead to the building of more roads. Will the same dynamics work in the case of water transportation? If solar/electric ferries get even cheaper, will more waterways open up?

The connection between Chernobyl and Mars

[Nasa / Wikimedia Commons]

“Never waste a crisis” is an often repeated phrase these days. It tends to come from managers and policymakers, who push reforms that might be otherwise difficult. 

There's a deeper meaning to ‘don’t waste a crisis’. Bad events contain within it seeds for a better tomorrow. People who get infected from coronavirus are protected from future infection because they develop antibodies. And their plasma can be potentially used for treating others. 

Let’s jump to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. By all measures, it’s terrible. But looking back, it offers some important lessons—for engineers, managers, policymakers and the public at large. 

Something more tangible came right out of the disaster—fungus!  

When the nuclear disaster struck Chernobyl, the radiation was so high it would have killed a human being in 60 seconds. But, right on the reactors, where the radiation was most severe, grew several species of fungi which were literally feeding on the radiation. 

Now, scientists have found that these fungi can also “absorb harmful cosmic rays on the International Space Station, and could potentially be used to protect future Mars colonies.”

Kennedy’s secret weapon

[Image by skeeze from Pixabay]

Like Joker (in The Dark Knight) whose challenges get bigger and bigger with every major scene even while retaining its essential theme, history tells us stories that get grander and grander while retaining the same plot. 

Check out these lines from Jill Lepore's fascinating story of a company called Simulmatics. 

  • The Simulmatics Corporation opened for business on February 18, 1959.
  • For its first mission, Simulmatics aimed to win the White House back for the Democratic Party.
  • Edward Greenfield, the company’s president, called it Project Macroscope. He recruited the best and the brightest, many of whom had been trained in the science of psychological warfare.
  • Greenfield’s scientists compiled a set of “massive data” from election returns and public-opinion surveys going back to 1952, sorting voters into 480 types, and issues into 52 clusters. Then they built what they sometimes called a voting-behaviour machine, a computer simulation of the 1960 election, in which they could test scenarios on an endlessly customisable virtual population: you could ask it a question about any move a candidate might make and it would tell you how voters would respond, down to the tiniest segment of the electorate.
  • “The issue of anti-Catholicism and religious prejudice could become much more salient in the voters’ minds. If that occurs, what will happen?”... Simulmatics recommended that John F Kennedy confront the religious issue, with the aim not of averting criticism but of inciting it: “The simulation shows that Kennedy today has lost the bulk of the votes he would lose if the election campaign were to be embittered by the issue of anti-Catholicism. The net worst has been done.” If Kennedy were to talk more and more openly about his Catholicism, then he would be attacked for it. And, if he were attacked, that would shore up support where he needed it most.
  • [Kennedy becomes the President] “What we have demonstrated is how data from past situations can be used to simulate a future situation,” the scientists of Simulmatics had boasted.
  • Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary, issued a public denial. “We did not use the machine,” Salinger said. “Nor were the machine studies made for us.”
  • The real Simulmatics Corporation was a small, struggling company. It was said to be the “A-bomb of the social sciences.” But, like a long-buried mine, it took decades to detonate. The People Machine was hobbled by its time, by the technological limitations of the 1960s. Data was scarce. Models were weak. Computers were slow.... The machine sputtered, sparks flying, smoke rising, and ground to a halt.

Today, it's the same story again with Facebook, Twitter and Google and their relationship with politics and society—only it's on a bigger scale. 

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About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath

Senior Writer

Founding Fuel

NS Ramnath is a senior writer and part of the core team at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book, The Aadhaar Effect. His main interests lie in technology, business, society, and how they interact and influence each other. He writes a regular column on disruptive technologies, and takes regular stock of key news and perspectives from across the world. 

Ram, as everybody calls him, experiments with newer story-telling formats, tailored for the smartphone and social media as well, the outcomes of which he shares with everybody on the team. It then becomes part of a knowledge repository at Founding Fuel and is continuously used to implement and experiment with content formats across all platforms. 

He is also involved with data analysis and visualisation at a startup, How India Lives.

Prior to Founding Fuel, Ramnath was with Forbes India and Economic Times as a business journalist. He has also written for The Hindu, Quartz and Scroll. He has degrees in economics and financial management from Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

He tweets at @rmnth and spends his spare time reading on philosophy.

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