March 04, 2016      

Following a successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, Autonomous Marine Systems Inc. last month raised $3.5 million in seed funding.

Somerville, Mass.-based Autonomous Marine Systems (AMS) has developed the Datamaran, an autonomous solar- and wind-propelled catamaran that is designed for long ocean surveys. A fleet of zero-emission vessels can gather ocean data for multiple customers at once.

“Long-duration, unblinking ocean observation will allow us to be better stewards of our critical maritime resources,” said Eamon Carrig, CEO and co-founder of AMS. “Our goal at AMS is to build a global, flexible, and extensible observation system as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

“One of the applications we’re most excited about is providing bespoke hyperlocal weather reporting that can aid in ship routing,” he said. “We?re looking to directly reduce the carbon footprint of other vessels as well by helping them navigate.?

AMS wins matching funds and awards

AMS got $1.6 million from investors including the Clean Energy Venture Group, Fontinalis Partners LLC, the Industrial Investors Group, and Signal Ventures. AMS also received funding from I2BF Global Ventures, the Texas HALO Fund, and angel investors.

The commonwealth of Virginia will provide $1.9 million in matching grants for a total of $3.5 million. AMS plans to use the funding for projects for the U.S. Department of Defense and the offshore oil industry.

In addition, the innovative startup won the Pitchfire competition at RoboBusiness 2015 in San Jose, Calif.

Schematic of the AMS Datamaran robotic vehicle.

Also in September, AMS won second place and $175,000 in the Virginia Velocity Business Plan Competition.

Carrig said that he hopes that Datamaran’s prospective military and energy users will be willing to share their data with researchers.

Pilots to run through 2017

Last fall, AMS demonstrated its Autonomous Data Recovery and Transmission (A-DaRT) system in the Gulf of Maine. The A-DaRT consists of a Datamaran with an integrated acoustic modem, allowing it to communicate with a sea-floor sensor 200 feet beneath the surface.

AMS also conducted a successful A-DaRT pilot for “a top energy services company” in October. The company also plans another demonstration for Geokinetics Inc., a Houston-based shallow-water seismic survey company, in the Caspian Sea off Azerbaijan.

In similar research, the Australian Maritime College at the University of Tasmania is spending $750,000 on building a new autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) facility.

“There really are only a few of these types of facilities in the world, so it’s really putting us into a select group,” said coordinator Peter King. “It’ll house a couple of existing underwater vehicles the university already owns and operates and will eventually house a new, large under-ice capable AUV, which was announced as part of the Antarctic Gateway Partnership project.”

AI allows for swarms

Professors at the University of Delaware and Oregon State University have written a paper suggesting that linking multi-sensor systems within autonomous underwater vehicles could improve autonomy.

Mark Moline and Kelly Benoit Bird found that programming computers within the REMUS600 AUV to analyze sonar data in real time allowed the AUV to map squid concentrations in real time. Their research is sponsored by the Office of Naval Research.

“Imagine what else could we learn if the vehicle was constantly triggering new missions based on real-time information?” Moline said. “This is just the beginning.”

Sampriti Bhattacharyya, an engineer at Hydroswarm, is refining EVIE (Ellipsoidal Vehicle for Inspection and Exploration), based on research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. EVIE could also operate in swarms to detect mines, map undersea terrain, detect illicit drugs on ships, or monitor sea life.

Similarly, the Subcultron system is being developed by teams in six nations and involves about 120 robots to monitor pollution in Venice’s famous canals.

A flotilla of drones readies for launch

The world’s oceans are vast, so it’s no surprise that several organizations in addition to AMS are working on making robotic vessels smarter and easier to produce.

For instance, Blue Robotics Inc. in Torrance, Calif., is using 3D printing to develop thrusters for underwater drones.

“The industry of marine robotics has stifled innovation by keeping the mechanics and technology expensive,” said Rusty Jehangir, founder of Blue Robotics. “With 3D printing, people are able to prototype and final manufacture parts inexpensively and quickly.”

Paris-based Parrot SA, which is known for its aerial drones, has added a small Hydrofoil drone to its wares. Other drones have looked to biological examples, including turtles and bats, for propulsion.

Moving from prototyping to production, Munich-based Fraunhofer IOSB (Institute for Optronics, System Technology, and Image Exploitation) has developed the Deep Diving AUV for Exploration, or DEDAVE. It is a modular platform for undersea exploration that can be mass-produced.

In October, Liquid Robotics Inc. named three former government officials to its advisory board:

  • Millard Firebaugh, retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and former deputy commander for engineering and chief engineer of Naval Sea Systems Command
  • Robert Gelbard, former ambassador to Indonesia, East Timor, and Bolivia; assistant secretary of state; and presidential representative for the Balkans
  • John J. Young, former undersecretary of defense and assistant secretary of the Navy

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Liquid Robotics competes with AMS in providing systems for defense, oil and gas, environmental, and fisheries monitoring.