August 14, 2013      

Last week, the Congressional Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation hearing ?How to Improve the Efficiency, Safety and Security of Maritime Transportation: Better Use and Integration of Maritime Domain Awareness Data? discussed introducing the latest technologies to extend missions while cutting costs. Bill Vass, CEO of Liquid Robotics, was one of the industry professionals testifying on the huge potential of unmanned vehicles in aiding the Coast Guard?s missions. Liquid Robotics introduced its Wave Glider, an autonomous marine robot powered by unlimited wave energy, to the commercial market in 2009. Since the product?s debut, Wave Gliders have collectively traveled over 350,000 nautical miles from the Arctic to Australia and across the Pacific in research missions. At a price of $300,000 per glider, Liquid Robotics is providing data collection for 10% of comparative alternatives. Without the need for refueling or a human crew, the Wave Glider is capable of long-term deployment, ranging from months, to even years at sea. Key to this unprecedented feat is the Wave Glider?s patented energy system, which uses an underwater glider tethered to a surface float to convert wave motion into propulsion. Alternative energy sources, like solar panels, have long been used in marine robotics, but are ultimately dependent on the weather. The Wave Glider?s growing success has capitalized on that drawback, going farther and operating in extreme weather, including hurricane-force wind and waves. The newest version of the Wave Glider, the SV3, has amped up the power, adding solar panels and battery storage to supplement onboard real-time data processing. Introduced this past April, the SV3 is capable of downloading software changes and updates at sea, via Wi-Fi, cellular networks, or satellites. Similarly, the glider can transmit photos and research data (like temperature, winds, humidity, water temperature, color and composition) using those networks. Such a durable and maintenance-independent technology stands to open several channels for potential contractors?like the U.S. Coast Guard?to explore, namely in research and surveillance. During the hearing, Mr. Vass highlighted the gliders? abilities to enhance search and rescue procedure, waterway and harbor security, drug and migrant interdiction, and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) enforcement. ?By using the Wave Gliders for these boring, yet risky, missions, they augment and increase the efficiency of [the Coast Guard?s] higher value assets and especially people,? Vass said in his presentation to the subcommittee. Liquid Robotics has been prepping for extension into military contracts, having provided the Wave Glider to the Navy Research Laboratory for environmental compliance studies in 2010. Last year, the company created a Federal Business Unit to deal specifically with government contracting and set aside an Integrator glider for military customization. In an interview last summer, Grant Palnier, Senior VP of the Federal Business Unit, indicated the Wave Glider?s readiness for stealth capabilities, saying, ?The system already has very low radar reflection, and can be designed to further reduce its reflective and electromagnetic signature, or even be submerged for short periods to mask its presence.? Yet, in Vass? presentation to the Coast Guard representatives, he and Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) focused on what the Wave Glider can do in terms of research. In a personal account of the technology, Chairman Hunter went on to say, ?They?re extremely inexpensive, they can test the water, they have cameras on them. They…can see oil sheen or any other kind of spill on the water. They can test the water, they can test weather, and they can do a lot of different things. And it takes no people whatsoever to do this.? A definite step away from stealth gliders and mine deactivation with mass military appeal for a few potential reasons, one of them being the sequester cuts; we?ve seen the same struggles for large-scale contracts occurring in the UAV market as a result of shrinking budgets over the last year. Plus, the Navy?s resources are solidly cornered by autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), that, as the name suggests, operate in deep water?which is generally more useful in stealth, as well as particular research missions. So it?s logical for Liquid Robotics to refocus its government bid on the Coast Guard, in areas where the Wave Glider?s capabilities are already well-tested. With its biggest buyers thus far including oil companies and research institutes, the glider is designed to be customizable for very specific types of data collection. Considering that the USCG debated how to classify the Wave Glider only a year ago?and for the record, they settled on ?marine debris??this showing at the subcommittee hearing bodes well for the craft?s trajectory. Maybe one government agency?s trash…is actually that same agency?s future. We?ll see.