Aquatic Drones Builds Data Service for Europe and Beyond

Aquatic Drones' autonomous boat approaches an electrical tower.

January 29, 2018      

Operating vessels and sending divers to inspect harbors and other marine facilities is very costly, so such inspections may not be as thorough as necessary to predict maintenance needs. Aquatic Drones is working on combining a fleet of small and medium-sized autonomous boats with data services.

The global market for unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) will grow from $470.1 million in 2017 to $938.5 million by 2022, predicts Markets and Markets.

Aquatic Drones, which is based in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, uses open-source, modular and own developed technology. It offers its autonomous vehicles and the data collection, processing, and modeling under a robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) model.

Business Takeaways:

  • Much of the marine drone market is split between cheap small vehicles for inland inspections and larger ones for underwater or ocean work.
  • Aquatic Drones has followed an unusual path to developing, funding, and marketing its data services through a RaaS model.
  • The company has developed autonomous systems for safe harbor use, applied machine learning to analyzing diverse hydrological data, and maintained a value of social responsibility.

Changing career course

Maarten Ruyssenaers, founder and CEO of Aquatic Drones, isn’t an engineer by training. He studied human resources and management at university of Rotterdam.

“I was already involved with a lot of startups and entrepreneurial projects, assisting them with brainstorming and implementing ideas,” Ruyssenaers told Robotics Business Review. “We did product development.”

Maarten Ruyssenaers, CEO of Aquatic Drones

Maarten Ruyssenaers, CEO of Aquatic Drones

After the 2009 financial crisis, he recalled, “I was offered a very large project at the Resource Design Manufacturing [RDM] campus in Rotterdam. It was a former shipbuilding yard that had already been empty for 20+ years.”

“The Port of Rotterdam, the municipality, TU Delft, and Rotterdam University had an idea for a ‘triple helix’ collaboration of research, government, and business, from startups up to big companies such as Shell,” said Ruyssenaers. “They invited me first for an interim job, then it lengthened.”

“I got experience setting up and sustaining projects, from idea to implementation,” he added. “We had €3 million [$3.72 million U.S.] and a target of 15 projects for the first three years. But after three years with a small committed team, we didn’t have 15 projects but 51 projects and 288 people involved.”

“From my own initiative, we begin building maritime and offshore innovation platform, including a ship of future with automated components, predictive maintenance in the control room, and VR on the bridge, as well as aquatic robotics,” Ruyssenaers said. “We built six prototypes.”

“I really got into working with technology, not from an engineering point of view, but from a project management one,” he said. “I worked with electrical, mechatronical and software engineers and systems architects, finding out what is needed in the world.”

“I learned at the RDM campus how to understand use cases, bring together specialized experts, and find an overall story for product development,” explained Ruyssenaers.

Aquatic Drones serves maritime needs with smart technology

According to Ruyssenaers, Aquatic Drones’ offering includes the following components:

  • Multiple small and medium multi-use surface vessels with a wide range of integrated sensors
  • An operating system for autonomous object detection and avoidance and multi robot cooperation (swarming)
  • Data analytics applying machine learning for interpretation and predictive maintenance models

“The current platform is 4.5 meters [14.7 ft.] long, with a depth of 70 centimeters [27.5 in.] for shallow and deeper inland waters and harbors,” he said. “We’re developing a second platform for sea purposes — the business case is it’s very costly to inspect offshore. We’re also busy with downscaling for smaller waters.”

Aquatic Drones' autonomous marine drone.

A render of Aquatic Drones’ surface platform.

The Netherlands has 3,000 km (1,864 mi.) of large inland waterways used for large inland ships, which need to be inspected for bathymetry, water quality, and quay status.

“Our platforms use lithium-ion batteries and can now operate for up to 16 hours but upgrading towards 24 hours is possible,” said Ruyssenaers. “They are smart devices that can charge quickly and collect data for twice or triple as long as a normal vessel.”

One of the most difficult challenges was the system integrating and software development for autonomy in divers circumstances.

“We had a whole line of systems, from GPS data from multiple satellites and inertial navigation to measuring the water quality,” Ruyssenaers said. “For instance, sonar moves faster in salt water than sweet [fresh] water. We also have a f infrared cameras above-the-water combined with a point cloud from sonar below the water. Everything needs to be calculated and calibrated; it was a very challenging setup.”

Demonstrations and partnerships

Over the past year, Aquatic Drones has run pilots that met the expectations of both the Port of Rotterdam and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management in the Netherlands, which Ruyssenaers described as one of the “highest standards in the world.” As a result, its platform and software should conform to other government requirements around the world and their maintenance models and software like GIS.

“Four dredging companies do all the major projects in the world — 90% of the suppliers are based in Belgium and the Netherlands, which are very interested in the technology,” Ruyssenaers said. Demand and projects are coming from all of the world, including Southeast Asia and the Middle East, he said. Aquatic Drones is working with multiple partners for its software and hardware.

“Our multi-use platform has been tested in harsh weather, and it can detect both large boats and small inflatables with children,” Ruyssenaers said. “We’re able collect raw data about, for example, depth and maintenance status of structures. We use algorithms to process an automated inspection that would normally take multiple divers a long time.”

Aquatic Drones in the Netherlands.

Aquatic Drones’ autonomous vessels must be able to operate in crowded ports.

“We’re talking with customers about what they’re inspecting, validation of reports, and finalizing the automation of post-processing of inspection data,” he said. “Another product that we’re developing with specialized companies is to look at the data archives of costumers as well as collecting new data. We can then see patterns of maintenance states developing over time.”

By combining maintenance data with new data on ship movement dynamics, Aquatic Drones is generating models that can predict water levels and usage and when maintenance should be conducted more cost-effectively.

“We’re looking to automation for the whole inspection operation,” explained Ruyssenaers. “We have a ground station and can run operations from our offices, with minimal human interference.”

Autonomy and simulation

As more data is gathered, machine learning can be used to make Aquatic Drones’ drones more autonomous and its models more accurate and self-improving, according to Ruyssenaers.

“We’re working with another company that puts sensors on ships — this provides situational awareness,” he said. “It’s not autonomy, but it records what the captain is doing. We also have a nice simulation that goes fast-forward. We can see one year’s experience in one day.”

With maps of Rotterdam and other ports around the world, Aquatic Drones can help plot courses that use less fuel, learn from multiple humans, and improve autonomous navigation.

“Next year, we’ll have five vessels in Rotterdam harbor,” Ruyssenaers said. “We can build knowledge in the cloud that will be mature immediately and have a spinoff product to empower other vessels for autonomy. There is already a lot of interest.”

Prepping for an unconventional launch

Ruyssenaers didn’t follow the typical route to funding. “I didn’t go to investors or a bank. I invested myself and talked to customers,” he said. “Because of my background at RDM, I had good relationships with them and the port of Rotterdam.”

“I wanted to know if the service is valuable, and I talked about their use cases and requirements,” said Ruyssenaers. “I said, ‘This is what we can do, but I want to see you commit with co-financing.'”

“We talked with development partners and robotics companies to get the minimum prices for sensors, for example,” he explained. “They knew we would scale up and collaborate further. Within a few years, we’re applying a flotilla of 10 to 20 drones to start and this will grow over the years, and Singapore’s use cases show a use of 50 drones and growing.”

“The business case was cooperation and lower costs rather than investment. Suppliers in Europe were very interested,” said Ruyssenaers. “We calculated the prototype at €800,000, or under $1 million, and made it easier for the port and ministry to put in a few hundred thousand euros. I invested in my own manpower.”

“The final product and full data service is ours,” he said. “The different systems stay the property of their owners, and we integrate. After piloting for a whole year, we’re now in Tech Readiness Level 7 moving to TRL 8. We’ll already be providing the data service by the end of 2018.”

RaaS on the water

Ruyssenaers said that customers have not had difficulty understanding the RaaS model for automated inspection.

“Very big, privately owned companies may want to own such systems, but when I explain to their CEOs that the future is in our data service, they understand,” he said. “We’re responsible for updating the robotic systems,the data modelingDevelopment goes so fast, they couldn’t update or maintain the systems.”

Aquatic Drones gathers hydrographic survey data.

Hydrographical survey data presented graphically

“There are two types of customers: small vessels on waterways and in harbors and the sea, where the main focus is offshore oil, offshore wind and defense. That’s dominated by relatively few users and high-price systems from the U.K., Norway, and France,” Ruyssenaers said.

“We believe in high-quality data where the money and demand are,” he said. “We focused first on inland harbors, where there is less space to maneuver than the open ocean and which is more challenging for autonomous solutions.”

“Full autonomy is just beginning, and most companies in our space don’t provide the full spectrum of data and processing,” said Ruyssenaers.

Global customers

Aquatic Drones is scaling up its piloting and expanding its customer base.

“Three water boards in the Netherlands, which are responsible for drinking water quality, want to move forward,” Ruyssenaers said. “Also, we’re busy with two of the biggest dredgers in Holland, and Shell is interested in open water systems.”

He has also been in discussions with offshore wind producers in the Netherlands, the Baltics and France and with research companies in Scandinavia and public agencies in Singapore.

“Singapore’s port has grown from being smaller than the Port of Rotterdam to three times its size, and the world’s three biggest ports are now in China,” Ruyssenaers observed. “Singapore’s top-down policies are pushing automation and robotics forward.”

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Full speed ahead for Aquatic Drones

On the hardware side, Aquatic Drones is working to upscale and downscale to get to three types of autonomous vessels. “The electronics on the boat have mature integration,” Ruyssenaers said.

The startup’s autonomy software is already tested, but it’s still being validated for better obstacle avoidance, he added. Aquatic Drones is also working to raise the trust of the human-machine interface and to mimic the drone’s behavior for other shippers.

Depth and topography data

Bathymetry data is important to harbor authorities worldwide.

On the data modeling side, the bathymetry is already finished, and Aquatic Drones will be working on water quality and different quay materials into next year.

“Robotics is sexy, but then we showcase how much more cost-effective and sustainable are the interventions we do with the ecosystem. We’re 10% to 20% more efficient than current models,” he added. “A lot of customers like our sense of corporate social responsibility. We want to be commercially successful and have a positive impact in the world.”

Editor’s Note: Maarten Ruyssenaers will conduct a demonstration of Aquatic Drones’ technology at The Unmanned Systems (TUS) Expo on Feb. 15. TUS Expo is collocated with RoboBusiness Europe 2018 in Rotterdam as part of International Robotics Week.