Oil drillers, scientists and the military are clamoring for new robots that can roam the ocean for years and never need fuel.
WE'RE 25 MILES OUT in the Gulf of Mexico, plowing through rough seas to rendezvous with a wave-and-solar-powered robot named G4, when Brad Woolhiser's laptop pings. We've got mail from G4, which is completing a two-month mission for oil giant BP to count dolphins and whales and detect petroleum in the ocean surrounding the site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Woolhiser is a technician for Liquid Robotics, the Silicon Valley startup that makes the robots called Wave Gliders, and the message on his Dell seems a bit alarming.
"Proximity alert,"warns G4, telling its minders that the robot's collision avoidance system has detected a ship identified as the Baltimore a mile away. As our boat pitches and yaws, Woolhiser switches screens and G4 appears on a Google map, its trajectory marked by a series of "bread crumbs"the robot drops via satellite every five minutes. The 250-pound, surfboard-size G4 is no match for the Baltimore, a 535-footlong tug, so some 2,500 miles away, at Liquid Robotics' headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif., a Wave Glider operator sends a signal over the Internet telling the $100,000 robot to alter its heading.
"They're not self-aware enough to change course by themselves--yet,"jokes Woolhiser, a tan and muscled 43-year-old who has flown in from Liquid Robotics' R&D center in Hawaii to help retrieve two Gliders and launch three other BP-commissioned robots that are strapped to the deck of the Defender 1, a 54-foot former Florida police cruiser.
While Wave Gliders haven't achieved Skynet-like consciousness, they represent a revolution in robotics that promises to advance ocean exploration and exploitation, much as the Hubble Space Telescope opened the cosmos. Packed in their 7-by-2-foot titanium-framed fiberglass bodies are terabytes of cellphone flash storage, a dual-core ARM processor running open Linux software, a battery pack, sensor arrays, a GPS unit, and wireless and satellite communications systems. It's all powered by two off-the-shelf solar panels that cover the top of the Glider.
But it is what's unseen 23 feet below the ocean's surface that makes the Wave Glider a perpetual motion green machine and that its investors are gambling will mint money from oil companies, scientists and the military. Tethered to the floating vehicle are six three-and-a-half-foot "fins"attached to a rudder. As the fins tap the energy generated by the up-and-down motion of ocean waves, they move to propel the robot at speeds of up to 2 knots. No fuel--fossil or otherwise--required.
The Wave Glider's capacity to operate autonomously at sea for months on end gathering data from uncharted reaches of the ocean has attracted $40 million in funding, including $22 million from VantagePoint Capital Partners, a leading Silicon Valley green tech investor, and oil industry services behemoth Schlumberger. Vantage-Point's chief executive, Alan Salzman, sees a huge potential market among companies and scientific organizations that now must spend anywhere between $30,000 and $150,000 a day to staff and outfit a carbon-spewing deep-ocean vessel. "Resupplying a ship in the middle of the ocean is staggeringly expensive,"he says. "The Wave Glider has enormous implications in terms of the ability to provide monitoring and information on things in the ocean we otherwise have no access to.”
At Liquid Robotics' headquarters two large flat screens track the 60 Gliders currently roaming the world's oceans. Besides working for BP and two other oil companies that Liquid Robotics is not permitted to identify, the robots have been deployed off the Japanese coast to monitor radiation, are dodging melting icebergs in the Arctic to measure ocean salinity and are tracking Somali pirates. Some Glid ers gather climate change data and count fish while others have been dis patched on classified missions by U.S. intelligence agencies. The company is also talking to energy developers about supplying robots to survey areas for potential offshore wind farms.
A stunning photo of a humpback whale leaping into the air flashes on a third big screen, the image captured by a Wave Glider's 12-megapixel camera. The whale is something of a totem animal for Liquid Robotics, as the Glider grew out of efforts by former Silicon Valley venture capitalist Joe Rizzi and roboticist Roger Hine to build a buoy to listen to the songs of the humpback and transmit the data to shore. Rizzi had started the nonprofit Jupiter Research Foundation in Hawaii in 2003 to develop environmental technologies and spun off Liquid Robotics in 2007 to commercialize what became the Wave Glider.
"It was just kind of a crazy project,"says Hine, the co-inventor of the Wave Glider, who served as Liquid Robotics' first chief executive and is now the company's chief technical officer. "If you want to keep robots cost-effective and build lots of them, they're going to have a limited power source, whether it's coming from batteries or from a fuel tank. So where are we going to get this energy?"The answer, of course, was using wave energy--not for generating electricity, as countless green tech companies have tried to do, but for propulsion. The Glider can achieve speeds of a quarter-knot on waves as small as 1 inch.
Liquid Robotics' rivals in the nascent market for emissions-free oceangoing drones include Teledyne Webb Research and iRobot. However, they both use a different propulsion technology called "buoyancy gliding"that exploits temperature differences in the ocean to propel their robots underwater.
The challenge for creators of earthbound robots has been to develop the bots' artificial intelligence and mechanical dexterity to allow them to manipulate objects and respond to a complex environment. The Wave Gliders, on the other hand, are the Roombas of the seas, relying on software and sensors to navigate their wide-open aquatic world. They are essentially information-gathering machines or, as Liquid Robotics Chief Executive Bill Vass, a former top Sun Microsystems executive and Pentagon official, puts it, "a cloud data center at sea.”
Wave Gliders collect enormous amounts of data and crunch the numbers--distilling 4 gigabytes of raw data to a kilobyte of relevant information a client wants, for instance--and then activate their Iridium satellite link to beam the result to servers on land. Some data, such as huge sound files of marine mammal vocalizations, remain onboard for future retrieval.
In a sign of how the company's fortunes ride on software innovation, Vass in August hired James Gosling, creator of the Java programming language, away from Google.
Two-thirds of Liquid Robotics' revenue--the company is not yet profitable--currently comes from the sale or customization of Wave Gliders with another third from selling data sub scriptions. Vass aims to transform the company, which projects its 2011 revenues will be $13 million to $14 million, into a robotic Salesforce.com, with 80% of its income derived from data services by next year. Rather than purchasing and operating Wave Gliders themselves, customers hire Liquid Robotics to outfit and deploy the robots to complete a specified mission and buy the data they gather. Data services packages range from $500,000 a year for Wave Gliders deployed within 50 miles of shore to $1 million for deep-ocean operations.
"It would be $35 million a year for a ship to do the same thing,"says Vass, 49, at Liquid Robotics' factory, where some half-dozen yellow longboard-shaped Wave Gliders are being hand-assembled while others are being wheeled around the parking lot on carts to make sure their solar arrays and electronics systems are working properly. "And you can't send a ship out for a year without refueling. It's very dangerous to be at sea--why send a person when you can send a robot?”
It's a pitch that resonated with Helmut Portmann, director of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's National Data Buoy Center in Mississippi. Portmann's agency operates a network of ocean buoys that collect meteorological data used for weather forecasting. The center must dispatch ships to service the buoys, whose mooring lines often get tangled in fishing lines or are severed by collisions with boats. "The Wave Glider gives us a lot more options to lower our deployment costs and eliminate mooring failures for us,"says Portmann, who previously worked on robotic systems for the Navy.
The center bought two robots and has been testing their ability to replace buoys and collect accurate weather information. This fall Portmann will send one to hover over tsunami sensors embedded on the ocean floor to collect data and beam it back to shore. Portmann is less sure about the Wave Glider's utility in supplementing an array of 70 buoys that collect climate change data across the South Pacific. "You have to maintain position very well because you have to get the same measurements at the same point on Earth over a long time,"he says from Tahiti, before boarding a NOAA ship on a mission to service the buoys.
The Navy's Irregular Warfare Office runs a fleet of two Wave Gliders. Rear Admiral Sinclair Harris, the office's director, says the Navy has been testing sensor payloads and has deployed the Wave Gliders around the Hawaiian Islands and off the Virginia coast to gather data on ocean conditions and perform other tasks.
Harris compared experimentation with the Wave Gliders to the early days of launching airplanes from the decks of ships. "You didn't know all what you could do or where you could go, but look how quickly that was developed and aircraft carriers quickly followed,"says Harris. "I think we'll see a similar impact with this technology. We live in an irregular warfare environment today, and if we can do things without putting a man or mammal in danger or polluting the environment, that's all the better.”
The Wave Gliders' stealthy profile and ability to run silent for months at a time has obvious military uses--patrolling coasts, tracking enemy vessels--though the robots' pokey pace is a drawback, Harris allows.
The Navy's Meteorology & Oceanography Command is also testing two Wave Gliders. "This allows us to sense the atmosphere and ocean anywhere in the world and use that in formation in a tactical sense to support our ships and troops where they're de ployed,"says Rear Admiral Jonathan W. White, the unit's commander. "But it also allows us to look at climate change anywhere in the world.”
While Liquid Robotics won fans among military officers and scientists, it had little luck initially in luring com mercial customers. Then came the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster and the massive environmental monitoring challenge BP faced in the oil spill's aftermath. A week after BP capped the Macondo well, Liquid Robotics dispatched its first Wave Glider to the Gulf for the oil company. A year later six robots operated by Liquid Robotics are trawling the ocean for BP. "We have included several types of data collection packages and are continuing to learn where this new technology might be applied,"Arden Ahnell, a BP science manager, said in an e-mail.
Back out on the Gulf aboard the Defender 1 on an overcast August day, we're on our way to recover G4, the Wave Glider that has been counting marine mammals--using a hydrophone to record their vocalizations--and gathering data about oil in the water around the Macondo well. But first the Liquid Robotics team needs to drop off three robots that will embark on new missions. As the company moves toward a robots-as-a-service model, the logistics and cost of deploying and recovering Wave Gliders have become bigger challenges. Hence, the presence on the boat of Keith Kreider, an oil-and-gas industry veteran who is Liquid Robotics' newly minted vice president of marine operations. It's his second day on the job, and Sunnyvale, we have a problem.
Woolhiser and another technician, Dustin Boettcher, are trying to replace plastic rings that protect sensor arrays embedded in the Glider's belly with copper ones designed to repel barnacles and other marine gunk that can interfere with the expensive gadgets. But the new rings won't fit. "These sensors are crucial to the mission,"says an exasperated Boettcher, 25, noting they'll measure the amount of oil seeping from vents on the seabed. After a couple hours of tinkering, Kreider, 50, hits upon the solution. He immerses the rings, which have been out in the hot Florida sun, in ice. Bingo.
Keeping the Gliders free of sea scum that can slow their speed and interfere with sensors and solar panels is key to undertaking extended missions lest they turn into robotic reefs. And so while two of the Gliders on deck sport standard-issue yellow paint, the third, G1, is coated in a dark gray "antibiofouling"material. When we reach the launch spot some 35 miles southwest of Panama City, Fla., the crew attaches G1 to a crane and carefully lowers the robot into the ocean as the boat rocks and rolls. When a tie line is removed, the robot drops its propulsion unit and takes off like a shot across the waves to begin its task of mapping the Loop Current, a fast-moving warm column of water that meanders throughout the Gulf and can push an oil rig off its moorings. Oil companies typically send out ships to monitor the Loop Current, but the hope is that the Wave Gliders will be able to provide more detailed data at a far lower cost.
The two other robots, G3 and G5, are launched on their missions, and we speed off to recover G4. Though the robot's GPS coordinates are punched into the boat's autopilot, finding the equivalent of a 7-foot surfboard in the chop is no easy task. An operator in Sunnyvale turns on G4's light beacon, which sits atop a 3-foot mast containing a weather station, and Captain Gary Buholm slowly circles until the robot appears behind a wave surrounded by fish sheltering in its shadow.
Riding low in the water, G4 looks a bit battered after two months at sea. Its hull is encrusted with barnacles and parts of its solar panels have a sea slime coating that resembles Wookiee fur. Woolhiser lassos the robot and guides it to the crane to be hoisted on deck. Vass wants 2,000 Wave Gliders sailing the seven seas a year from now. The next iteration will likely sport solar-powered thrusters to speed its way when waves are small. Possible future models will be able to dive like submarines to perform tasks on the ocean floor, or serve as deep-ocean fish farmers, feeding fry and hauling the mature catch to shore.
Vass imagines that his drones will serve as a platform and customers will dream up new technologies and uses, much like apps on an iPhone. "It's kind of a perfect storm of low-cost cloud computing, cheap sensors, communications and breakthroughs in robotics combined with the fact that the world is realizing that the ocean is not infinite and the resources there have tremendous value.”
A few hours into the return journey, the sat phone trills. It's Sunnyvale calling: One of G5's sensor arrays is malfunctioning and the robot must be retrieved.
As it turns out, finding a robot in the dark isn't that hard. When we near its location, all the bots turn on their lanterns, and three lights appear spread across the horizon. G5 is hauled aboard, the faulty sensor swapped out, and the robot sent back on its way into the night.