Robots tackle ocean research
By Robert Janis
It is obvious how important the oceans are to the ecosystem of our planet. They influence the weather; they provide food for us to eat; and they offer oil that fuels our machines. To say the least, the oceans are essential to our lives.
The fact that the oceans are so essential makes it imperative that we study them. However, until now the equipment used for the task have been very expensive to use and offer a risk of polluting the waters that we must keep pristine. A technology company based in Sunnyvale, California, with offices in Hawaii and Houston, Texas, has come up with a way to study the oceans in a passive manner. The vehicle they have developed does not burn fuel nor does it offer the risk of pollution. Instead of a ship or a buoy, the vehicle is a robot that swims naturally through the oceans and can carry the scientific equipment used to monitor the seas.
The company is Liquid Robotics and the vehicle it has created is the Wave Glider®.
Joseph Rizzi, a retired venture capitalist who created and ran several integrated circuit companies, is the co-founder and Chairman of Liquid Robotics. He also is director of The Jupiter Research Foundation, a non-profit group that finance ocean research projects. Roger Hine is also a co-founder, inventor of the Wave Glider and the Chief Technology Officer of the business. He is a mechanical and robotics engineer. They started the company in 2005. It was formally incorporated in January 2007.
The creation of Liquid Robotics was inspired by the song of the humpback whale. David Bailard, vice president of marketing for Liquid Robotics explained. “Joseph Rizzi has a home on the big island of Hawaii. When he goes swimming and dives off the Kohala coast he hears the song of the humpback whales. The area where he swims is a marine protected reserve for humpback whales. He wanted to record the sound and pipe it into his home and make it available to people who are interested in whales through the Internet. So he commissioned a project to provide a way to gather the whale song.”
“They started with buoys that were moored right off the coast. However, because of the marine preserve there were limits on what one could put out in the water and how far they could go,” continued Bailard. “Storms often reached the shores of the island and washed the buoys away. So he talked to Roger Hine, whose father, Derek Hine, owned a robotics company. They took on the task of coming up with something that could be sent out on the water to go to where the whales are for an extended period of time. The device had a microphone that went down deep into the water to capture the song of the whales and then communicate it back to shore. That led to the development of the Wave Glider.”
The challenges confronting Hine and Rizzi in developing the Wave Glider were technical. “The marine environment is very harsh and difficult to develop products for,” said Bailard. “The amount of energy and the chemistry of the ocean makes it a very difficult environment, especially for things that involve electronics. Hine and Rizzi had to come up with a platform that would be rugged enough to last and operate for a year or more in the ocean. Moreover, the initial operation would take place in a marine preserve and around whales so they needed a platform that had very little environmental impact. They came up with a mechanism that harvests the natural energy of the ocean for propulsion and uses solar panels for the electrical energy to work the instruments. It is totally passive, has no emissions, and the vehicle was designed to be used in the preserve and to not injure a whale if it were to encounter the machine, or get entangled with it. Hine and Rizzi gave the vehicle the ability to come apart so that an entangled whale could get free.”
The Wave Glider is a two-part system that includes a float, which is similar to a surfboard or windsurfer, and a submarine or glider. The float remains on the surface of the water and it bobs up and down with the waves as they pass. An umbilical cable connects the float to the submarine that is about 20 feet underwater. The sub is equipped with a series of spring loaded wings that help to guide the submarine through the water as the wave motion helps to propel it and the float along.
“The wave motion decreases dramatically as you go beneath the surface of the water,” explained Bailard. “It could be very, very rough on the surface, but if you go down only 10-feet or 20-feet, it is very calm and still. So as the float bobs up and down with the waves, the cable pulls the glider or submarine up and down through the still water. As it is pulled up, the wings flap down and glide the submarine up and forward, then as the wave drops the float, the wings of the sub rotate so the sub drives down and forward. So the Wave Glider moves similar to a porpoise swimming in the water.” This multi-patented design uses the wave energy for forward propulsion. No fuel is required; no propeller is involved; it’s acoustically silent.
The Wave Glider is actually a general purpose vehicle on which you can mount a variety of sensors. The sensors can go on the float, the cable, or the submarine. “We integrate different sensors for different missions,” said Bailard. “The sensors range from the most basic to the most sophisticated.”
For example, there is a weather station which goes on a mast on top of the float. It captures the usual weather information like temperature, wind, barometric pressure, etc. On the body of the float is a satellite antenna that includes a GPS receiver that informs the Wave Glider where it is and the direction it is heading. A water speed sensor also appears on the float so that it can be determined how fast the vehicle is traveling. The speed and direction of water currents can then be inferred.
Then there are a variety of different things that can go on the float depending what the mission is. There is an acoustic doppler current profile (ADCP), a very sensitive sonar system that measures the water currents in very precise layers down to 150 meters. It tells you the size and direction of the current on the surface and at every few feet down to 150 meters (492 feet). There are water chemistry meters, which use light to measure things in the water like hydrocarbons, which shows whether there is oil in the water, and it can measure chlorophyll, which determines how much plant life is in the water. An acoustic modem, also called a subsea gateway, can also go on the float so that the Wave Glider can communicate with things that are in the water or on the bottom of the ocean. This allows the device to be used as a bridge between the radio signal in the air and the acoustics signal used by equipment under water.
Things like temperature measurement devices, water conductivity measurement devices and microphones can be put on the submarine. This permits the monitoring of the direction and intensity of sounds under water.
“The research that a glider can do depends on the instruments that it carries,” said Bailard. “We have customers who have different requirements so they need different configurations. We also have a number of customers who have integrated their own sensors on to the platform.”
Bailard noted that research groups like the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, which is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and NOAA itself are doing very sensitive modeling of CO2 in the ocean to analyze the acidification of the ocean and global warming. “They have integrated some equipment on to the Glider that does very accurate measurements of the dissolved CO2 in the water and compares it to the CO2 measurement in the air. This helps them improve their model of how CO2 is passing between the atmosphere and the water.”
The gliders also include an Automatic Identification System (AIS). Ships over a certain size are required to have this system to broadcast information about their position, direction and speed. The Wave Glider receives these broadcasts, and this helps to avoid a glider and ship from running into each other. “If the glider determines it is getting near a ship, it takes evasive action to avoid it,” said Bailard.
A small $2M ship or boat is used to get the Wave Glider out into the ocean. “Even on a very long voyage, you don’t need to take the gliders very far off shore to deploy them,” said Bailard. “At our own test facility in Hawaii we use a small boat and we take them about a mile off shore, lower them into the water and let them go. They swim on their own to where we need them to operate. We’ve had customers lower them off the end of a dock. In some cases, customers have used larger ships to take them farther off shore.”
Human pilots at Liquid Robotic’s offices in Sunnyvale operate the gliders all over the world. The pilots communicate with the devices via satellite and the GPS on the Wave Gliders tell the pilots where they are and where they are headed. The pilots use software that is based on Google Maps to chart where the vehicle is and where it is going. The software also includes nautical charts to help the pilot steer the gliders away from reefs or other obstructions. Most gliders are piloted directly. However, the system can be pre-programmed to follow a particular route and go to an assigned location without intervention.
Gathered data can be transmitted back to shore by satellite or it can be stored on the hard drive of a computer and brought back to shore. “There are some applications where the data that is being gathered is so massive, it would be too expensive or not possible to transmit it back at satellite speed,” informed Bailard. “In those cases, we can configure the glider with an onboard computer with disk storage to record the information and bring it back to shore. We have customers who have recorded the song of whales and sounds of other marine mammals off shore. The recording can add up to a massive amount of data that can’t be sent back via satellite so the vehicle brings it back to shore for analysis.”
Rizzi’s Jupiter Research Foundation provided the financing for the initial startup. The money was used to finance the initial concept development of the gliders. “Once we showed that we could build it, a group of angel investors joined Rizzi to provide the next two rounds of funding,” said Bailard. “That money was used to productize the platform and permit some demonstration missions. We determined that there were quite a wide number of applications for the product. So we did a Series D venture financing with Vantage Point Capital Partners as the primary investors and Schlumberger. Now Wave Gliders are being used on a variety of projects.”
Bailard noted that Liquid Robotics offers ocean data services that include capturing data on the weather, ocean conditions, marine acoustics, water quality and different oceanographic properties of the ocean. They also provide communications services to talk acoustically to equipment that is underwater. They also sell some equipment and services to customers who operate their own Wave Gliders.
Some of the clients Liquid Robotics service include NOAA and a portion of NOAA known as The Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL), which is based in Seattle, Washington. “The Laboratory is doing CO2 and climate modeling. They have been operating gliders for a year or more,” said Bailard. “Another part of NOAA, The National Data Buoy Center (NDBC), who operates the weather buoys in the ocean, has been testing Wave Gliders to supplement their network of buoys. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which is part of the University of California at San Diego, are also using our Wave Gliders. They recently won a one million dollar National Science Foundation grant with us to develop a system for placing sensors on the bottom of the ocean to measure and forecast earthquakes and to monitor tsunamis around the world. BP is also a client and has been using Wave Gliders to measure and monitor the water quality in the Gulf of Mexico for the last year.”
According to Bailard, clients buy or lease Wave Gliders. “Half of our customers are under a data services contract where Liquid Robotics provides them with data. The other half of our clients buy the Wave Gliders and operate them themselves,” said Bailard.
The company has 80 employees.
What Liquid Robotics is doing has a major affect on the technology trade. For example, they are pushing the state of art of technology with the marine propulsion system used by the gliders. “The direct conversion of wave energy into propulsion is a very efficient way to capture the energy without converting it into electricity to drive the vehicle,” pointed out Bailard. “A glider can operate virtually indefinitely out in the ocean without needing any fuel. The duration of its mission is constrained primarily by the buildup of plant and animal life that can start to grow on it.”
The Wave Glider also represents advancements in the area of robotics and robotics control and navigation. “We are moving from operating individual robots that are piloted by humans one-by-one and moving towards having whole collections or fleets of robots that need to do a job together. Our Chief Software Architect James Gosling, the inventor of the JAVA programming language, is working to improve the ability of our robots to pilot themselves and operate cooperatively,” said Bailard.
Moreover, Liquid Robotics is using a different business model. It is offering data services to clients as well as selling hardware which clients use themselves. “We are changing the way customers use ocean data,” continued Bailard. “They don’t have to buy equipment and figure out how to run and manage it. All they have to do is define their business problem and we provide them with the data they need.”
Bailard noted that up until now, there have been only three ways one could gather data on the oceans. You can send out a ship, but that can be very expensive. Ocean going research ships that gather this type of information can cost $10,000 a day for near shore operation or more than $100,000 a day for deep ocean operations. “It gets to be prohibitively expensive to gather data over an extended period of time when ships are involved,” he said.
Another way data is being gathered in the oceans is to use moored buoys. “They are hard to maintain and they break or get pulled off their moorings,” continued Bailard. “It costs $1 million or more to place a buoy in the deep ocean and you have to send a ship out to do it, which makes the venture so costly.”
Moreover, buoys gather data at only a single point in the ocean. A researcher doesn’t know what it is like just a mile away.
Another way to gather data is to use earth observation satellites. The United States and European governments have launched these types of satellites. They carry a variety of sensors that can infer conditions on the surface of the Earth and oceans. However, these satellites can’t directly measure or monitor conditions under the surface of the water. Satellites are great at providing global coverage, but because of the distances involved, their measurements are often averaged over wide areas. Wave Gliders can instead provide direct measurement of temperature, winds and other near-surface conditions at specific and precise locations around the globe. The capabilities of these two systems (satellites and Wave Gliders) are naturally complementary.
“It is necessary to measure and monitor conditions right in the ocean,” said Bailard. “It is important for such things as forecasting hurricanes. NOAA is getting much better at predicting where a hurricane is going, but they are less accurate in determining how strong it is going to be once it hits the shore. This is determined largely by the temperature of the water in the layer near the surface. It is too dangerous to send out manned vehicles into a hurricane to get his kind of data. However, you can send out a robot. So we are working with the NOAA to develop and use Wave Gliders to monitor the water temperature during hurricanes.”
Liquid Robotics are pursuing three primary markets — the energy market, which includes offshore oil and gas and wind energy businesses; the national security and defense market, which includes the navies and coastal protection forces worldwide, and big science, oceanography, weather and climate science conducted by universities and government labs around the world. “We have a separate sales force going after each of those markets,” said Bailard. “We are also building new markets with businesses who were not aware we can do measurements over an extended period of time cost effectively.”
Bailard added that Liquid Robotics is doing a lot of integration work now and continues to evolve and improve the basic platform.
Bailard concluded, “Seventy one percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by oceans. Those oceans are not as heavily instrumented as the land is. So for things like weather forecasting, resource management for oil exploration, and environmental protection we are relying on a very sparse selection of instruments out in the ocean. If we are going to support the one trillion dollars of resources that are extracted from the ocean every year or the trillions of dollars of international trade that travels by ship, if we are going to manage that kind of flow of our economy, then we need much better information about the oceans and what is happening there.”
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