Blackout in Venice: The Taxi of the Future

Digital control systems installed by a Venetian company are changing the way people approach onboard instruments in boats that can’t afford breakdowns.

When you walk across the Ponte della Libertà, the last kilometer of road that separates Venice from solid land, you’re immediately given the sensation of entering a different dimension. This is the lagoon, the way it has always been ever since populations from the continent, fleeing barbarian fury, decided to found a floating city here, erecting buildings where once there had been nothing more than a collection of barren, muddy islands. Everything is different in Venice.

Mario Cosma (left), owner of Blackout Service and Mirco Narduzzi, the soul of the "San Pietro shipyards"
Mario Cosma (left), owner of Blackout Service and Mirco Narduzzi, the soul of the “San Pietro shipyards”

Mario Cosma (photo), owner of Blackout Service, is sitting in front of me. By his side sits Mirco Narduzzi, the soul of the Cantiere Motonautico San Pietro shipyards, joking with us both while we wait for our coffee. We’re in a sort of hidden corner of the city, one of those where you can’t find any signs pointing the way to the “Train Station” or “Rialto.” Protected by the thick walls of the Arsenale, and the S.Pietro in Castello basilica with its high, leaning bell tower, the trattoria where we’ve just finished eating lunch looks out over an empty, deserted piazza, or “campo” as they’re called in Venice.

We spent the morning in a boat with Mario, navigating up and down the Canal Grande, the Canale della Giudecca, the Rios of Dorsoduro, Murano island… We were observing and photographing water taxis around the lagoon that have been equipped with Blink Marine Keypad PowerKey 1000 and the power management unit PowerCore 210. Today Blackout is the only official service point in the Venetian lagoon for Blink Marine systems.

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We wrapped up our visit at the Cantiere Motonautico San Pietro shipyards, where Mirco Narduzzi proudly showed off a recently-built taxi that we tested together. The taxi is equipped with a Blink Marine system that manages full LED illumination. The onboard system is complete with a radar system featuring an electromagnetic wave low-emission antenna set on the prow of the vessel, but below deck so that it remains invisible.

Taxi
Over time, Blackout Service and Blink Marine became specialized in installing and maintaining electric onboard systems for the lagoon area water taxis.

The system is able to connect via bus to the motor – a last-generation Volvo Penta – and visualize all the parameters on the same radar display: an innovative solution that Blackout and Cantiere San Pietro di Castello are trying out together for the first time. Once most of our work was behind us, it was time to sit down at the lunch table and talk a little. Still stirring his coffee, Cosma began to tell us about his work, starting with a fundamental clarification: “The Venetian lagoon is unique. Only people born here can really understand it.” He took a few sips of coffee, then continued, “Circuits are circuits, electric charges are electric charges, but the lagoon is unique, and the needs a client has here can’t be found anywhere else. The way people work here is different from everywhere else. I worked outside Venice before; recently we had a job in a shipyard in Jesolo where they were outfitting 20- and 30-meter vessels. My work there wasn’t any different from what I do here day in and day out in the lagoon… yet at the same time, it was completely different. In Venice, everything is different.”

A taxi in Venice
“I learned that for these kinds of vessels, the most important thing is to make sure they have as few disservices as possible.”

Mario Cosma began working in the nautical sector out of a passion for boats he inherited from his father. He apprenticed under Glauco Veratelli, an important name in the nautical sector and the world of electric onboard systems. In his final years of activity, Veratelli strove to pass on his knowledge and experience to the disciple he intended to hand his business over to a few years later, once Glauco retired. “For me, it was like signing up for an advanced master course. Glauco brought my knowledge to a higher level: he taught me about the real needs of the boats we were working on. I learned that for these kinds of vessels, the most important thing is to make sure they have as few disservices as possible. The lagoon is a very humid, salty environment, and breakdowns due to oxidation, drops in voltage, failed connections and so on are par for the course, you might say. Glauco taught me to stop considering these problems inevitable, to work to reduce them to a minimum, and ultimately make them a rarity.”

Over time, Blackout Service became specialized in installing and maintaining electric onboard systems for the lagoon area water taxis. “The Venetian taxi market is an extremely demanding niche; my cell phone is turned on day and night. We offer a round-the-clock assistance service. On one hand, this kind of approach really takes a toll on us, but on the other it is precisely what is most rewarding. We’ve built up a relationship based on trust and reliability with the taxi drivers we work with. They know they can always count on us.”

Blackout has made a name for itself in this sector as one of the companies most open to technological innovation. “It wasn’t that way in the beginning, but with time and hard work we built up our reputation. Today we can offer a series of important new developments to our clients. They trust these precisely because we’re the ones presenting them. Mirco provided important support in this area: he was the first one to put his faith in us.”

“The truth is that the San Pietro shipyards has become Mario’s playground,” explains Narduzzi, half serious and half joking. “He has always enjoyed a privileged relationship with us, and we let him play around with new solutions on our taxis.” The foundation of their relationship is built of deep, reciprocal professional respect, as well as on a shared vision of the right direction to take. “I would say,” continues Narduzzi, that there were two key points we found we agreed upon right from the beginning: on one hand, in order to stand out from the pack you need to have the courage to take risks, to experiment with new solutions; on the other if you want to last and be successful over time, it’s not enough to add a couple of little lights. The job has to be done to perfection: it has to be built to last and not cause any problems.”

The success Blackout has enjoyed, collaborating continuously with the Cantiere San Pietro shipyards, is therefore based on two fundamental, apparently opposite elements that are in reality closely connected: respect for the traditions inherited from Veratelli and honed through years of experience working on boats around the lagoon; and an open approach to innovation, understood as a continuous search for solutions that are technologically capable to best support a building philosophy oriented on the highest possible level of reliability, not just chasing around after the latest trends. “For us, the Blink Marine system meant having an opportunity to open a new chapter and leave traditional onboard systems behind. It provided us with exactly what we were looking for, because it is at once innovative and extremely reliable. I believe so strongly in these products that today I offer them for basically the same prices as switches, even though their market value is considerably higher. I might lose a little something, but I consider them investments for the future that allow me to offer my clients a product that won’t break down.”

"Equipping each boat with twenty switches for twenty different uses with forty wires created an unmanageable situation when it came to ongoing maintenance."
“Equipping each boat with twenty switches for twenty different uses with forty wires created an unmanageable situation when it came to ongoing maintenance.”

Thanks to the Blink Marine onboard systems, Cosma can even rationalize maintenance efforts in the years following installation. Use management proves far more well-ordered and less subject to failure. “We realized we were losing a lot of time building instrument panels with traditional switches and levers. Equipping each boat with twenty switches for twenty different uses with forty wires created an unmanageable situation when it came to ongoing maintenance. We spent days threading wires through panels, only to discover the next year that we had to do the same thing all over again. It was a waste of time. With the Blink Marine systems, however, we had the advantage of simple wiring and the complete absence of fuses and thermal elements.”

Another key point of research for Cosma and Blackout is undoubtedly the aesthetic value of the instrument panels it produces. In this sense, Blackout is constantly on the lookout for solutions like those Blink Marine provides, which make it possible to “clean” the aesthetic of their instrument panels, rendering them as essential as possible and reducing wood inserts to a minimum. “I always dream of a boat that can be piloted like an iPhone, intuitively and using a single button. I’ve developed a close relationship with the engineering staff at Blink Marine. I know that today they’re working hard to transform the communication protocol unit and handsets to an open CAN. This will be a fundamental upgrade, and I can’t wait to implement it. Thanks to CAN protocol, it will be possible to interface these onboard systems with other digital and information systems, for example managing and monitoring several boat functions directly via a smartphone. This is a theme that our clients around the lagoon are starting to get excited about, and which we should be able to offer them no later than the end of 2015.”