In 2005, Roger Hine was designing equipment to manufacture semiconductors at Asyst Technologies in Fremont, Calif., when he was asked to take on an offbeat freelance project. Jupiter Research Foundation, a nonprofit that develops new technologies to monitor the natural world, contacted the robotics engineer about creating a gizmo to help record whale sounds. Jupiter had already tried hooking up an underwater microphone to a buoy, but that proved unworkable. Chairman Joseph D. Rizzi wanted an independently powered device that could troll the seas for months and return to shore undamaged.
Hine, 39, first approached the project as "just a fun engineering problem." Over the course of a year, he fashioned a contraption with two main parts. A surfboard-shaped floating portion rises and falls with the passing waves. A cable connects it to a torpedo-shaped unit 22 feet below. As the rig moves up and down, wings on the submersible portion convert the motion into forward thrust. "The surface was probably the worst place to be if you wanted something to remain stationary," says Hine. "So we wanted part of the system below, away from the winds and surface currents."
Christened Wave Glider, Hine's invention can be steered remotely or follow a preprogrammed route. Solar panels on the float power sensors and a satellite antenna that transmit information—sounds, water temperature, salinity—to a website.
Hine, who has a masters in robotics from Stanford University, quit Asyst in 2006 so he could devote himself to the Wave Glider full-time. A year later he and Jupiter spun the venture off into a standalone company, Liquid Robotics, with Hine at its helm. The Sunnyvale (Calif.) startup has sold 50 Wave Gliders so far. The machines, which start at $175,000, are helping BP (BP) monitor water quality near the defunct Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico. They also keep tabs on algal bloom off the California coast for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
Liquid Robotics logged $7 million in revenue in 2010, says Hine, who expects the figure to double this year. The company is on the verge of closing its first venture capital round for $23.1 million, according to a regulatory filing. "The market is still small but growing, so they have an opportunity to make their name and a big difference," says Lindsay Voss, senior research analyst at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Voss figures the oil and gas industry spent more than $250 million on unmanned marine systems last year.
Hine says colleagues in the robotics field like to tease him because his creature is blind and has no arms or legs. His retort: "No matter how intelligent or sophisticated a machine is, it first needs energy."
Built a self-powered device that can monitor the seas
Getting his startup, Liquid Robotics, to break even by 2012
Programmed a robot to catch hockey pucks