Tristan da Cunha

The most remote settled island in the world, with a population shy of 300, is, perhaps unsurprisingly, in economic trouble and this is a design contest to help them.

I find small islands endlessly fascinating (seriously, I’ll sometimes just tool around Google Maps and then look up the islands I find), and so I wish that I had relevant skills.  Given that I don’t, I’m not going to bother to stay constrained to the actual contest asks.

Tristan’s fundamental problem is that it has a tiny population and is super-isolated.  This fundamental problem means that its infrastructure is dependent on single points of failure, and when they do fail, they fail hard because getting outside experts to come and fix them is difficult.  Some specific problems that Wikipedia notes:

  • The nominal fishing season lasts 90 days; however during the 2013 fishing season – 1 July through 30 September – there were only 10 days suitable for fishing [because its port is so bad and weather is so fierce].
  • On 13 February 2008, fire destroyed the fishing factory and the four generators that supplied power to the island. On 14 March 2008, new generators were installed and uninterrupted power was restored. This fire was devastating to the island because fishing is a mainstay of the economy.
  • On 4 December 2007 an outbreak of an acute virus-induced flu was reported. This outbreak was compounded by Tristan’s lack of suitable and sufficient medical supplies.

Also note that internet-based solutions don’t help much because Tristan has intractably bad internet.  Because obviously it’s far from any kind of physical cable, and its latitude is too southerly to have good satellite-based internet.

Okay, so, having electricity supplied by diesel generators is a problem both because they have to import diesel and also because generators require a pretty large amount of pretty specialized maintenance.  Solar would be the ideal alternative in terms of maintenance, but it’s apparently cloudy like all the time at Tristan, and also, again, super-southerly, so solar doesn’t seem like it would be efficient.

What about wind power?  The wind should be pretty constant on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic, and current weather reports back up that intuition.  Wind, being mechanical, is inherently more maintenance-intensive than solar, but it may still be less specialized work than dealing with the high temperatures and expanding gasses of a diesel generator.  They’ve got a lot of space (per capita) on Tristan, and a high elevation mountain to play with, so they don’t need super-quiet windmills — just put them up slope enough that they aren’t a nuisance for the inhabitants.  Efficiency is probably also not a huge concern, so they can tune the dials as much as possible for lots of small windmills — size should mean they can be individually maintained by less proficient people.

Wind power of course won’t handle all their electricity needs, but if they target 50-75% of their demand with wind power, they could significantly reduce their reliance on the generators and their fuel costs, and in the event of another catastrophe they could have significant power until their generators were repaired (keeping the same generators, they could presumably mothball one of them and use it as a backup if another one breaks down).

The next most serious issue is their harbor and how it’s only approachable 1/6th of the year.  If you check out Google Maps, this seems to me to be a fundamental limitation of their geography:

There’s no natural harbor here.  It’s exposed as hell.  It seems like any kind of civil engineering that would significantly change its exposure would be just massive.  I don’t buy it.  I think that the harbor is basically the harbor that Tristan is getting.

Tristan has no airfield, which seems crazy, but remember that it’s thousands of miles away from the nearest commercial airports.  Small planes can’t reach it.  Large planes can’t/won’t land at a necessarily tiny, mostly unmanned airfield.  And of course air travel is expensive.

But.  Low-speed unmanned aerial vehicles can have ranges that vastly exceed the 2,000 miles or so necessary to reach Tristan, and they’re much lower cost than traditional manned cargo planes.  Small ones could be well-sized to the modest airfield Tristan could supply and the modest cargo needs of Tristan.  This is speculative — as far as I can tell, no system like this exists today.  But people are interested in unmanned cargo aircraft, and I think that a company trying to develop one might be able to make a profitable partnership with the island.  More routine delivery of high-value supplies to this photogenic and isolated community could be a good story for such a company to lead into really economically meaningful markets, and Tristan might be willing to make concessions regarding the legality of unmanned aircraft.

If Tristan did have an airfield that could enable it to receive supplies reliably in a matter of a day or two, that could also lessen its exposure to medical problems — drugs would be able to be shipped to it quickly rather than slowly, at least.

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