Wireless Technologies

Ahoy there! There be drones at sea

We’re slowly but surely moving towards an age where drones regularly fly overhead delivering parcels, inspecting buildings, and searching for criminals. But a similar wave of autonomous and remote-controlled drones are changing the tide of ocean-going operations.

Aquatic innovation

Though it often goes under the radar, there’s no shortage of new innovative efforts going on around the world’s oceans and seas. Norway is looking at intelligent fish farming, for example, and Blockchain technology is being looked at for use cases around managing shipping container logistics. One company is looking at becoming the “Uber of water taxis”. Nautilus Data Technologies is looking at creating floating data centres, while Microsoft’s Project Natick is looking at undersea data centres.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – aka the kind of drones you buy from DJI – are also finding uses on the waves. Much like on land, inspection is a big use case: the likes of BP are using UAVs to monitor offshore oilrigs instead of sending people up or down for manual inspection.

The Drone Age is here: Aerial Strategies founder David Preznuk talks about his new book and the nascent UAV industry

Maersk has made a big song and dance about its digital transformation efforts, including partnerships with Microsoft and IBM. It has used drones for internal tank inspection. And, last year the company completed its first trial of shore-to-ship drone delivery 250 meters off the coast of Denmark, bringing a box of cookies to the crew on board. Eventually, the company plans to deliver spare parts, mail, food supplies, or medicine and save money on sending barges to the container ships.

“Costs for a barge are on average $1,000 and can easily go up to $3,000 or more. With the current pay-load of drones, on average a vessel has three cases per year in which the barge transport could be substituted by a drone – meaning a potential avoidance of barge costs of $3,000-9,000 per vessel per year. And if you consider that Maersk Tankers has around 100 vessels, the savings potential could be substantial,” Markus Kuhn, Supply Chain Manager at Maersk said in a press release.

A spokesperson for Maersk told Connect that through 2016 the company “made further tests of the use of drones for spare parts delivery to vessels and inspections on-board, i.e. vessel tanks inspections” to investigate their potential around time & cost reduction efforts, and that “further drone tests will be conducted during 2017”.


Beyond UAVs

But there’s more to this new trend than flying octocopters over an expanse of water. There’s a whole new fleet of autonomous and remote-controlled drones designed specifically for water-based uses.

In Amsterdam, the RoBoat project is looking at creating a fleet of autonomous platforms which could transport goods and/or people, or be used to create temporary bridges or platforms, as well as measure water quality.  There are numerous robotic sailing competitions happening every year such as SailBot and the World Robotic Sailing Championship.

There’s also a whole range of new companies looking at creating drones for both on and below the water line. Bluefin Robotics [acquired by General Dynamics Mission Systems last year] builds torpedo-like Unmanned and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (known as UUVs or AUVs) which can be used for ship salvage, mapping, environment monitoring and more. SailDrone is a solar and wind-powered surface drone (also known as a Unmanned Surface Vehicle, or USV) designed to collect real-time data on areas such as infrastructure monitoring, fishing stocks, and weather. AutoNaught out of the UK has a similar offering which relies on wave power for propulsion.


In the consumer space, however, there’s less going on. Chinese drone makers PowerVision revealed a remote-controlled fishing drone at this year’s CES, while there have been a couple of underwater camera drone projects such as the Ziphius and Gladius on crowdfunding sites. The $3,000 prosumer Blueye Pioneer from Blueye Robotics was recently announced.

Underwater powerray fishing drone creates waves at the CES 2017 from designboom on Vimeo


Liquid Robotics

One of the earliest companies bringing unmanned drones to the oceans was Liquid Robotics. The California and Hawaii-based company was founded in 2007 after founder and Chairman Joe Rizzi wanted to listen to the songs of the Humpback Whales in the bay of Hawaii and relay it back to his house in real time.

“Turns out when you solve that kind of a problem,” says Liquid Robotics CEO Gary Gysin, “That has applicability to oil and gas, to weather forecasting, wave height summary, to defence purposes and tracking submarines, illegal fishing vessels [and other] things like that.”

Their USV, called the Wave Glider, started life essentially as a floating Hydrophone. Today it’s a 9ft long autonomously-navigating floating sensor platform and communication relay. Sensor options include weather, wave measurement, camera, chemical sensors, hydrophones, and more. The Glider is able to collect and process data in real-time and send it via Cell, Wi-Fi or satellite to ship, shore, or nearby aircraft as required.

James Gosling, creator of the Java programming language, was the company’s Chief Software Architect (he recently joined AWS) and described the Wave Glider as “a data centre rack designed to sit in salt water”.

The Glider comes in two parts; on the surface (known as the float) are a variety of sensors and the solar panels which power the computing, and underneath the water Is the sub which helps steer the whole thing. The Wave Glider’s propulsion comes from the power of waves.

“It's gravity, with wave motion it can even be very small, six inch waves,” explains Gysin. “The bobbing up and down of the float pulls our sub up and down, and attached to the sub are a set of wings, they basically just pull the sub up, water pressure pushes the wings down. On the back side of a wave, the sub drops, and then water pressure is exerted from underneath the wings.”

It’s not the most rapid vessel; it averages around 1-3 knots (about 1.15-3.45 MPH) but Gysin says the thrust it generates is akin to a tractor when used to tow things. The reliance on solar and wave power means the platforms can stay out at sea for up to a year.

The Wave Glider was the first autonomous vehicle to cross the Pacific, has survived hurricanes and even shark attacks. Gysin says the company now has over 400 Wave Gliders ‘in every sea across the globe’, have been through 17 hurricanes or cyclones, and combined have sailed more than 1.2 million nautical miles [equivalent to just shy of 1.4 million land miles].

“What's funny to see is when a bad storm is approaching, the Wave Gliders are out at sea doing their work and you'll see all the other vessels just disappear off of the AIS map because they're going back to port, and you've got these little dots out there that are Wave Gliders that are still doing their work.”


Shark-proofing and acquisitions

Liquid was acquired by Boeing in December, and is now a subsidiary of Boeing within the Autonomous Systems Division.

“We have a big vision and a big idea,” Gysin says. “And having a big partner like Boeing to help us with the whole Digital Ocean concept makes total sense.”

He explains that Liquid was acquired because it is the missing part of the puzzle; the defence giant has UUV systems such as the 51-foot Echo Voyager, traditional UAVs of various shapes and sizes, plus satellite offerings, but didn’t have a USV platform.

“Boeing didn't have a surface of the ocean answer. They had everything else but they didn't have that linkage. And by having that platform there, we can communicate in real time to the undersea things and to their aerial drones and manned aircrafts.”

“Their primary reasons for acquiring us was we're arguably three to four years ahead of other surface autonomous platforms.”

While Gysin says his competitors – the aforementioned SailDrones and AutoNaughts of the world - will no doubt evolve over time, there’s much to be said from learning on the job.

“You just learn things when you're at sea and you've been through hurricanes, shark bites, corrosion, or marine growth. Just all sorts of different things. The sea is a harsh place.”

“We went through a hailstorm in the Atlantic, but we lost all power on the vehicle and we couldn't figure out what going on. We went and recovered the vehicle it turns out the hailstorm had crushed the solar panels. So, we now have Gorilla Glass on the solar panels. Our earlier vehicle, the S-V2, had a shark bite through a rudder cable and we lost navigation. We have no exposed cables now, everything's internal.”

“It takes a while. These are smart companies, smart guys, they'll figure it out. But they've got to go through what we did; years and years of learning and lessons and hardening platforms.”


Creating a Digital Ocean

A key tenant of Liquid’s strategy is the concept of a ‘Digital Ocean’; a mesh of sensors and connected devices which come together and form a pervasive network, and provide ubiquitous connectivity to the oceans.

“Maybe 5% of the ocean is actually known – we know more about space than we do the ocean. And yet, if you think about all the things that are critical; our climate, food supply, shipping & commerce, security and defence; there's just a whole lot that goes on in the ocean, and it's not sensor-networked.”

Large expanses of water have no permanent infrastructure and little to no connectivity options, and even in areas that do, the speeds are slow and the costs can be exorbitant. Ships mostly rely on radar and transponders to avoid each other, then satellite comms or perhaps traditional telecoms coverage if close enough to land to communicate with the outside world.

“If you think about how sensor networked we are on land – it’s pretty good and getting better and getting more autonomous. The issue with the ocean is that sensors exist, they're typically on very, very expensive platforms, they're not networked, they're not integrated.”

Quite what the answer is to these questions, no one knows. Nano-satellites could be one option, as could internet-providing drones such as Facebook’s Project Aquila or Google’s balloon-based Project Loon, or perhaps some sort of 5G or IoT-centric mesh network.

Eventually, Gysin plans to have a mesh communication network between the Gliders as a piece of the puzzle. This would integrate with other boats, drones (both above, on, and below the waterline), plus anything else at sea that collects data, and relay it to wherever it's wanted or needed.

“You can start to do really meaningful work [to create a mesh network] with 50-100 Wave Gliders. But our vision for this is there are thousands to cover the ocean. You wouldn't blanket the globe just because - you'd pick areas of high interest obviously - but it's thousands for sure.”

“For the first time, we can have a persistent network of sensors devices from seafloor to base not possible before.”


Also read:
Commercial drone flights: Poor rules, NASA, & the future


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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