Investments in unmanned maritime systems are becoming more popular every day, especially in the areas of ocean scientific research, the oil and gas industry, and naval industry.
Developers and manufactures of robotic systems used for monitoring and surveillance of oceans, such as unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) and unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), are constantly coming up with new ideas to make these systems more attractive to various offshore markets.
Namely, a relative newcomer on the market, a company based in San Diego called Ocean Aero has designed and built an unmanned vessel that can operate both on the surface as well as underwater, thus expanding its applications.
For many years, oceanography centers have been developing and deploying AUVs, and similar robots, to explore the ocean depths, while USVs have found their applications more in shallow water surveys and military ocean observations. Offshore oil and gas industry has found use for these systems in monitoring and surveying the subsea infrastructure.
Ocean Aero’s unmanned underwater surface vessel (UUSV), known as Sabmaran, is designed for extended autonomous ocean observation and data collection. The vessel is powered by wind and solar energy, capable of months at sea, and it can be deployed from land, sea or air.
In an interview with Subsea World News, the company’s founder, CFO and Executive VP Ken Childress shared more information about this project and Ocean Aero’s future plans.
Could you tell us a little bit more what you do, what is the company involved with and how did it all start?
Ocean Aero was founded 3 years ago by myself and Mark Ott our current CTO. We had previously worked on a project for the US Navy building unmanned hard wing sailboats. The project came to an end in 2011 and we wanted to put what we had learned to work so we founded Ocean Aero to build unmanned sailing systems. We had learned that the wind/solar power approach was well accepted but that the vehicle needed to be more portable than the 50’ trimaran we had built. The Submaran S10 is the first product.
We build hybrid, wind and solar powered unmanned vessels that operate both on the surface as well as underwater. The concept of submersion is part of the product and first came about by looking at ways to get the small vehicles out of harms way in harsh weather. We later extended the idea into operational submersion so that we have a complete system that is an Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV) an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) and a sea Glider all in one. The current S10 can submerge down to 10 meters and another vehicle, the S200 will be introduced in late 2016 and will submerge down to 200 meters. Our markets are: Government (non-military and military), Scientific Research and Commercial like offshore Oil and Gas operators and Fishing. Anyone who needs to gather information/data on or from the ocean for long periods of time, or is currently using surface or subsurface gliders is a potential customer.
Our readers know you through your Submaran UUSV project, how long has it taken you to develop the vehicle from its prototype to commercial stage?
The Submaran has been developed over 3 years. Of course, as I mentioned, we had 8 years of experience building unmanned marine systems prior to starting with the Submaran. Over the 3 years of development we have built 5 Submaran prototypes making improvements along the way. We have used a rapid prototype development model with extensive use of technology such as 3D printing of parts and “on the fly” software development.
You’ve exhibited your recently launched Submaran S10 at Oceans 2015 in Washington, how was the vehicle received?
Oceans 2015 was absolutely outstanding. The reception was overwhelming. We had so many people around the booth all the time it was hard to get to answer everyone’s questions. We are now in discussion with a number of customers and representatives about projects and delivery of boats early next year. We will also be attending the Underwater Intervention show in New Orleans in February and an AUVSI event in May.
When do you expect first orders to start coming in and what is Submaran’s advantage over other USVs and AUVs on the market?
We are already in discussions about first orders and expect to have them in place before the end of the year. The Submaran’s primary advantages are, the ability to submerge to get out of the weather or out of sight, it’s speed (over 5 knots) for long periods of time and when the S200 is released, it will be the 3 in one vehicle so customers will need only one type of vehicle for missions down to 200 meters. For customers who do not need deep dive capability the S10 will always be a less cost, surface and shallow dive alternative.
Last year, you’ve entered into a strategic partnership with Teledyne, how has that helped your company move forward and are there others involved in development of your projects?
The partnership with Teledyne has been extremely positive for us. They have now invested considerable money and owns about a third of Ocean Aero. We have benefited from being able to locate in one of their facilities in San Diego, which has helped us to not have to worry about facilities and facilities management. We have also benefited from a Business Development standpoint by being allowed to share booth space at events and get input from their product specialists and introductions to potential customers. Overall it has been good and we are looking forward to the future.
You’ve landed a contract with the Department of Defense to develop a prototype Long Range UUSV, similar to your Submaran model, what can you tell us about that project?
I can tell you that the LR-UUSV is a significant scale up of our existing Submaran technology. It will be over 12 meters long and capable of submerging to 150 meters. It will deploy 2 (or more) folding wingsails and have a surface speed of 10 knots in good conditions. The payload capacity will be about 500 kilos and it will be completely wind and solar powered. I think it may be one of the most interesting boats ever built.
We are now moving forward to becoming a product manufacturer instead of just a “development phase” company. This means we need to be planning for growth in both facilities and personnel to support manufacturing of Submarans. Additionally, we will be building out our sales and marketing infrastructure that will include employees as well as re-seller partners around the world. Of course we will also continue to grow our R&D to improve our products and look for new innovative approaches. We are looking at things like wind power for large vessels and continued development of autonomous robotic behaviors.