Liquid Robotics

Drones come to the high seas

April 11, 2013: 10:40 AM ET

Liquid Robotics's Wave Glider are the first unmanned autonomous marine robots that use the ocean's waves for energy.

By Clay Dillow

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FORTUNE -- Where data is concerned -- that is, where usable, potentially profitable data -- the world's oceans are somewhat akin to black holes: We know they are out there, but beyond what we can see at the horizon, we really have no idea what's happening in any one place from one moment to the next. The amount of useful information streaming back to shore from the world's oceans, home to critical food stocks, abundant energy reserves, vital shipping lanes, and the engine driving global climate, is so thin as to be meaningless for all but the most academic purposes.

"Do you realize that in the ocean today there is often one sensor for an area the size of California?" says Liquid Robotics CEO Bill Vass. He likens this to standing in Death Valley and trying to determine the local temperature via a thermometer that is hundreds of miles away. "It may not feel like 58 degrees to you," he says, capping off the analogy. "But that's what your sensor says because your sensor is in San Francisco."

This dearth of data places Liquid Robotics in a truly unique position. Its seaworthy, sensor-laden, surfboard-shaped Wave Glider robots use a novel propulsion system to convert the rolling motion of ocean waves into energy for forward thrust, creating a self-contained system that requires no refueling and very little maintenance as long as the ocean continues to move. The company proved this last December when one of its Wave Gliders -- launched from San Francisco a year prior -- arrived in Brisbane, Australia after autonomously completing a 9,000-mile trans-Pacific crossing. It proved its durability again when one of the NOAA's Wave Gliders traveled right through the center of Hurricane Sandy in October. But with the release of its latest iteration of Wave Glider this week at the Navy's Sea-Air-Space expo near Washington, D.C., Liquid Robotics has more or less completed a transition from robot manufacturer to one of the world's more interesting big data companies.

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Why? Because the Wave Glider's trip across the Pacific was little more than a warm-up lap. Liquid Robotics has previously sold and leased its robotic sensing platforms to the U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but for most applications -- oil and gas exploration, tropical storm tracking and prediction, fisheries management, maritime threat interdiction -- data, rather than a robot, is what the customer really wants. Wave Glider can provide data by the terabyte. But the brand new Wave Glider SV3 processes data by the terabyte and networks with other Wave Gliders in its vicinity, basically creating an information-rich cloud stretching across the high seas.

Key to this is a proprietary cloud-based operating system called Regulus (designed for Liquid Robotics by Java creator James Gosling) that allows the SV3 to exhibit a fairly dazzling degree of autonomy while also maintaining an open source component that allows for rapid deployment of new sensor payloads and software packages as well as rapidly swappable software and hardware to run them. Sensor payloads can include virtually anything that fits in the SV3's seven modular payload units: atmospheric and oceanographic sensors applicable to ocean and climate science, video cameras and acoustic sensors useful for national security and marine environment protection purposes, or instruments for mapping and evaluating geography on the seafloor and below. And thanks to the cloud-based software architecture, some SV3s could carry all of these sensors and more while offloading some of the data processing to another nearby Wave Glider serving as a central data hub.

In other words, Liquid Robotics can deploy something like a floating server farm to process the data collected by other Wave Gliders in the area, then supply customers on shore with only the refined, processed data that they want -- something oil and gas exploration companies in particular have been quick to embrace. (Alongside the NOAA and U.S. Navy, Liquid Robotics' client list includes names like Schlumberger (SLB) and BP (BP).)

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"If you look at an ocean-rated crew vessel that can do this, it costs about $150,000 a day in a commercial environment," Vass says. "An ocean-rated research vessel is about $40,000 a day. We do the same kind of data collection -- usually denser data collection actually, because we move more slowly -- at about a tenth of that cost, and we don't pollute or put people at risk when we do it."

Currently Liquid Robotics is operating 200 Wave Gliders at sea in every ocean on Earth, Vass says, a number that is growing 60% year over year. The company has provided data to about 100 customers thus far, and when its current fleet of SV2s -- which largely stream raw data back to shore for processing -- are replaced and upgraded with the SV3's onboard processing capability (the new SV3 begins shipping in Q3, though most of its upgrades are retrofittable to existing SV2s) Liquid Robotics' ability to provide companies with dense but highly refined data sets will likely grow exponentially. Vass and his colleagues envision a globe swimming with Wave Gliders, creating a mesh network that spans the 70% of the Earth that is, as yet, largely unwired.

"Our customer is anyone who moves over the ocean or extracts value from it," Vass says. "Or anyone who deals with weather," he adds, more or less tying up what the company sees as its real value proposition. Not every company needs high-resolution data streaming in from far out at sea, but the data Liquid Robotics provides could have impacts far beyond its client base (think anyone who relies on NOAA or the National Weather Service to make decisions). And those entities that directly need this kind of data -- whether oil and gas outfits, national security agencies, or wildlife management, oceanographic researchers, or international shipping concerns -- have never been able to access it before. At least not like this.

"Ten years ago this company would've been science fiction," Vass says. " Bringing all of this technology together is really going to change the world."

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