The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab (PMEL) in Seattle, which has an annual budget of around $40 million, has monitored the seas using sensors on buoys and boats for nearly 40 years, a process lead engineer Christian Meinig describes as slow and expensive. So five years ago, when Meinig learned about the Wave Glider, a robotic ocean-monitoring device that can go anywhere on the sea for a year without recharging its battery, he wanted the lab’s 40 oceanographers to try it out. “Research ships cost typically $15,000 to $40,000 per day and of course can do much more than a Wave Glider,” says Meinig. “However, the Wave Glider gives us a unique tool to bring down the costs of observations and sample regions of the ocean that are rarely or never visited by research vessels.”
Unlike other unmanned devices and gliders, which rely on batteries that eventually lose their charge, the Wave Glider needs no fuel and captures energy from the environment, converting wave motion into thrust and harvesting sunlight via solar panels to provide electricity for sensors. It can be remotely controlled as well as programmed to travel to a destination. GPS-enabled electronics transmit data gathered by the sensors to the operator’s website.
As word of the gliders spread through the oceanography community, its creator, nonprofit Jupiter Research Foundation in Puako, Hawaii, in 2007 spun off a for-profit company to keep up with demand: Liquid Robotics in Sunnyvale, Calif. Inventor, co-founder, and Chief Executive Officer Roger Hine, who holds a master’s in robotics from Stanford, initially thought the project was “just a fun engineering problem.” Then, he says, the team realized that converting wave motion directly into propulsion was an unprecedented -- and potentially lucrative -- way of dealing with the ocean’s No. 1 constraint: its vastness.
PMEL is now outfitting two of Liquid Robotics’ Wave Gliders with sensors -- the base price is $175,000, plus $45,000 for sensing equipment -- to study increases in the ocean’s acidity due to climate change, a problem that threatens the food chain. Many basic shelled organisms that other marine creatures feed on, like certain types of plankton, oysters, clams, sea urchins, and corals, die or are adversely affected. This summer, Meinig says, PMEL will use the gliders to explore acidity in remote areas of the ocean around Hawaii. Meinig and his team will assess performance and determine cost-effectiveness compared with other gliders, buoys, vessels, and satellites to decide whether to recommend buying more.
To date, the 45-employee company has sold 50 gliders that have logged more than 100,000 miles of operations. Besides scientists drawing on them for ocean acidification data, the U.S. Navy uses them for security purposes, BP relies on them to monitor water quality near the defunct Macondo well in the Gulf, and Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute employs them to track algal bloom toxic to otters off the California coast. Although maritime security and scientific applications have generated the most revenue for Liquid Robotics so far, Hine anticipates that spending by commercial sectors -- specifically petroleum (a $1 trillion industry), wind, and fishing ($200 billion) -- will soon exceed them. Last year, he says, Liquid Robotics had $7 million in revenue and he expects that to almost double this year.
By March, Hine says, Liquid Robotics will close its first venture capital round, which a regulatory filing shows could be for as much as $23.1 million. Unlike the approximately five other unmanned glider-makers, which grew out of academia and depend on government grants to cobble together funding, Liquid Robotics has the luxury of fine-tuning its technology to win customers even as the government pulls back on funds, says Justin Manley, who is responsible for the company’s business development in scientific and commercial arenas. Hine says Liquid Robotics is planning to use the venture financing to expand its field operations and sales and marketing teams to better support commercial customers. The company is also developing sales, applications engineering, and product support partnerships, Hine says. He notes that final assembly will continue in Sunnyvale; engineering, payload integrations, and testing will remain in Hawaii.
The ocean hosts tremendous industries that have a huge need for maritime data. Last year the oil and gas industry bought $250 million to $300 million worth of unmanned maritime systems; the Defense Dept. spent $70 million to $100 million to reduce or eliminate mines, inspect ships, and conduct inspection surveillance, according to Lindsay Voss, the senior research analyst of trade group the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. That same year, the scientific community (universities, NOAA, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, for example) spent $40 million to $50 million, Voss says. She expects 4 percent to 6 percent annual revenue growth in the unmanned maritime systems market over the next decade. “We saw tremendous interest in whether water in the Gulf was safe, and gliders and unmanned maritime technology are key tools,” she says.
For PMEL’s Meinig, Wave Gliders could unlock vast new territories that will help mankind better understand acidification. “I hope we’ll be able to make discoveries with it for years to come,” he says.