DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (CNN) -- Described as "possibly the greatest evolution in boats since the advent of steam," an ingenuously simple concept that combines sun and wind power with sophisticated computer systems is set to transform the future of navigation.
Sydney Harbor's Solar Sailor: the ship of the future?
Solar sailing -- the idea of using solar and wind energy to propel ships -- can cut a ship's fuel costs by up to 90 percent and significantly lower its environmental impact. The new technology, which is already used in Sydney Harbor, can be applied to everything from cruise ships to 500,000-tonne water transport tankers and small unmanned military vessels.
The concept is the brainchild of Robert Dane, an Australian doctor from the small fishing town of Ulladulla in New South Wales. A keen sailor and rower, Dane was watching a solar-powered boat race in Canberra in 1996 and noted that the winning boat used a solar panel inclined towards the sun. The only problem was that as the wind grew stronger the panel became a hazard and had to be pulled down.
"It intrigued me, and I started wondering how one could combine sun and wind to power a modern, seaworthy boat," Dane says. "And then one day six months later, I woke up one morning and realized that I could use a wing sail that was at the same time a solar collector.
"I started reading about evolution and learnt that insects had initially used wings as solar collectors and only later used them to fly. This made me think that boats too, could evolve wings to collect solar power -- not to allow them to fly, but to allow them to sail."
Dane started working on this idea and developed a flexible wing sail covered in solar panels. The steel and plastic structure was not only able to exploit both solar and wind power, but could also adapt to sudden changes in weather by folding onto the ship's roof. Thus the sail would not destabilize the boat, but the solar panels could still collect energy.
By combining Solar Sail technology with conventional engines, Dane had come up with a versatile solution that would allow ships to run on wind, sun, batteries or fuel, or any combination of these.
He registered the idea at the patent office and took the first solar sailing boat to the Canberra boat race in 1997, where it came in first. With the help of investors and, later, government funding, Dane then designed a 100-seater eco-tourism ferry for the Sydney Olympics. Covered in dazzling solar panels, the white catamaran sailed into Sydney Harbor in June 2000, where it still operates today.
Equipped with eight wings that can be angled to the wind, the ship is controlled by a sophisticated computer system that picks up on the wind force and solar power and assesses when the wing sail should be unfolded and retracted. At the same time, it monitors the charging of the batteries and assesses the most efficient combination of energy use.
The Sydney Solar Sailor soon became a big success among passengers who enjoyed traveling in a noiseless and fumeless boat, while environmentalists were quick to recognize the enormous benefits of this green boat that allowed for a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and air and water pollution.
Presented with the Australian Design Award in 2001, Solar Sailor today draws global attention in the world of shipping. Ferry operators in Hong Kong and Germany are waiting for the delivery of their orders, while Dane has also received enquiries from Shanghai. Recently, a ferry operator running services in San Francisco Bay to the former prison on Alcatraz Island has also signed a deal with Solar Sailor to build a 600-seater tourist ferry.
Besides these commercial uses, the Solar Sailor concept has also attracted the interest of a US company, Unmanned Ocean Vehicles, which is developing marine drones that run exclusively on renewable energy: sun, wind and waves. These crewless coastguard ships carry no fuel, no food and can remain at sea for at least two years.
"For the cost of one conventional battleship, you can have 8,000 of these drones patrolling the seas," says Dane. "After the capital cost, there is no other cost except for the one guy sitting in a control tower looking at a computer screen -- it offers huge savings."
And the future? The possibilities seem limitless: from luxury private yachts to tanker ships, the prospects of saving fuel, reducing pollution levels and increasing passenger comfort means that the Solar Sailor concept could go a long way on tomorrow's blue highways.
"One of the key challenges ahead is to improve the ways in which we store energy," says Dane. He explains that better energy storage will allow the ships to cope with any situation and provide energy both in the day and at night and in summer and winter. But he is confident that by 2020 this small hurdle will be far behind and that marine transport will be transformed for good.