July 1, 2008

Wayne: Seastead Community

A guest post from TSI co-founder Wayne Gramlich about his vision for the evolution of seastead communities:

Venice, ItalyyMy model for a seastead community is that it will grow and evolve along the same lines of Venice, Italy. Venice started off as 118 small shallow islands off the coast of Italy. In the beginning, passage between the islands was via small boats. Over time these islands became fully populated and interconnected via bridges. I expect a seastead community to follow a similar evolutionary path.

While it would be wonderful to have a fully interconnected seastead city at the outset, basic economics dictate that an initial seastead community will start off as a heterogeneous collection of individual seasteads. These seasteads will range from sailboats, old converted cargo ships, ocean going yachts, and purpose built seasteads. The purpose built seasteads will range from small to medium and eventually to quite large. The small seasteads will be short and squat and relatively low to the ocean surface. The more expensive and comfortable seasteads will extend upwards from the sea surface to reduce interaction with large waves. Eventually, large elevated surfaces along the lines of Mini-Float, Float, Inc., or VersaBuoy will become available. The larger structures will be either be bolted together or interconnected via bridges.

Unlike early Venice, there is no particular need for a land grab. As people show up with their seasteads, they can be integrated into the overall seastead community. Indeed, there is no reason not to rearrange the seasteads on a regular basis. For example, it is possible to imagine that a seastead community is rearranged every day to optimize for a different kind of behavior. On race day, the community becomes long and narrow with a lane down the middle for viewing of motor and sail boat races. On market day, vendors who are selling product would be collected into a central location to make it easier for buyers to purchase product. This could be similar to the water market at Damneon Saduak (130 km from Bangkok) in Thailand. I will not belabor the point, dynamic geography is a real selling point for seastead communities, and we should experiment with it to see what communities come up with.

Inter-Seastead Travel

The reason for having a community of seasteads is so that people can interact with one another for work or play. I expect inter-seastead travel to be dominated by small boats at first and eventually evolve towards bridges and maybe even being bolted together as the technological (and sociological) issues get worked out.

Regardless of the technology people use to travel between seasteads, any seasteads that are not physically connected to one another will need some technology to help maintain position relative to one another. Pretty much all seasteads will require some sort of location determination technology (e.g. GPS, sonar, laser triangulation, etc.) in conjunction with position maintenance technology (e.g. water thrusters.)

What matters is that the individual seasteads maintain relative position to one another. The entire seastead community can have a net drift as a result of water currents and/or wind direction. If all seasteads are drifting in the same direction at the same speed, that is perfectly acceptable to the community as a whole.

I envision that the initial position control system for each seastead will consist of GPS receiver connected to a small computer with a wireless 802.11n capability. In addition, the computer will be connected to a relatively low power water thruster system. A system based on modified salt water trolling motors is probably workable.

We are going to have to come up with algorithms and protocols that allow the various seastead position systems to communicate amongst themselves. These algorithms and protocols will keep track of the average GPS community location, the current average community drift direction and speed. Once the average community drift is known, each individual position system can try and maintain a position relative to the community center. Given that GPS receivers generally have sudden jumps in position when they switch satellites, I am quite sure that there will a whole bunch of trial and error required to get algorithms that perform well without causing excessive energy drain on the positioning systems.

A relative position control system that is based exclusively on GPS signals will probably be able to maintain a relative position that is accurate to 10’s of meters. This is probably "good enough" for the boat based inter-seastead visiting that I envision at the beginning.

Please note that people who live in the suburbs (and rural areas) are already quite comfortable with concept of hopping into a car every time an errand needs to be run (e.g. taking the kids to/from school/soccer, buying groceries, visiting friends, going to work, etc.) Thus, the initial seastead community will have some of the feeling of living in suburbia, except that people will use boats instead of cars.

Since I expect the initial seasteads to be full of smart and innovative people, I expect that there will be a lot of tinkering to improve inter-seastead travel. I will mention a few such possibilities below:

  • For solid goods only, a good old catapult could be used to simply throw the goods from seastead to seastead. Of course, if the catapult misses, replacing the misplaced goods could get expensive.
  • A rope could be strung between a pair of seasteads and people could pull the rope taught, hook onto the rope, and slide across to the intervening space. This will probably appeal to the more adventurous types. When the rope is not in use, it could simply float on the water surface to prevent tugging the seasteads together.
  • The seasteads could actually be maneuvered close enough together that people could simply jump the gap. Old tires could be used to prevent damage if the seasteads bump together. A simple plank can be dropped across the gap to help prevent people and goods from falling through gap.
  • A specialized boat can be developed that can be used to ferry people (and groceries) between seasteads. Patri and I call this ferry a sea elevator since it moves between seasteads (horizontal movement) and it can adjust its height (vertical movement.) Whether or not sea elevators will cost competitive with boats remains to be seen.
  • Eventually, people are going to want an experience similar to Venice, where they can simply walk around. In the case of Venice, the islands did not have a tendency to move around, so it was simply a matter of building a bridge big enough to span the water gap. For seasteads, some additional engineering is required to deal with the tendency of a seastead to move around.

    Unfortunately, building bridges to interconnect seasteads whose position is only accurate to 10’s of meters is not easy. For bridge based interconnect, relative positional accuracy will probably need to be within a few meters, maybe even less than a meter depending upon the bridge design.

    I seriously doubt that plain vanilla GPS is up to the task of getting the relative positional accuracy that close. The good news is that I am not sure it really matters. Once a bridge spans the gap between two seasteads, it can have additional sensors to measure the distance and angles. Everything else is fairly simple trigonometry.

    The bridge designs will have to have safety features that allow them to safely disconnect when the seasteads drift too far apart. It will not be acceptable to simply dump foot traffic into the ocean when that happens. While it would be nice if the bridges can automatically reconnect afterward, it may be necessary for humans to be involved for the original connection.

    There is some seastead platform technology, like Versa-Buoy, where the platforms can be brought together and firmly bolted to one another. For these platforms, there is no need to worry about the platforms drifting apart.

    Regardless of the what the initial collection of seasteads used to form a community are, the Seasteading Institute will need to provide the standards for maintaining relative position and the interfaces for interconnecting via bridges.  This will be part of our protocol suite for seasteading.