When Open Ocean Robotics’ boats are out on the seas, they’re manoeuvring their way to areas unreachable by manned vessels. They do it without fear of capsizing and with no gas powering the motor.
They do have a driver, but instead of peering out over the bow, this boat’s captain looks into a computer screen at the Vancouver Island Technology Park.
And as most start-ups see the sky as the limit, the Saanich company’s co-founders and married couple, Julie and Colin Angus, are reaching for the depths. Open Oceans Robotics thinks its uncrewed, autonomous and solar-powered boats could be key to understanding our vastly unexplored oceans, enforcing illegal fishing and so much more.
“We really don’t understand our oceans, 80 per cent of our oceans are unexplored, unmapped, unobserved,” said Julie, adding that the biodiverse oceans cover most of the Earth and are vital to human life.
On the outside, the vessels’ unique design allows them to self-right so they never capsize — which is pretty important as they’re cutting through the water at up to 18 knots. Solar panels on the deck power the propulsion, sensors and communications (radio, satellite and cellular). Energy storage in a battery bank allows the boats to theoretically stay out on the water for months at a time.
“It needs to have really high performance, it has to move well with minimal energy input,” Julie said. “You’re not going to get any more energy from the sun, but you can maximize what you do with that energy.”
The boats constantly beam information back to the Technology Park in real time while on the water through cloud sharing. Julie said the boats are already involved in researching whales and marine mammals, fish populations and ocean-environment conditions, such as salinity, temperature and algae bloom locations.
The drone-like boats are also equipped with several sonar functions, so they could locate whales and alert nearby ships to slow down, map the ocean floor through hydrographic surveying so ships don’t hit bottom and determine vertical water currents to see where oil could be spreading in the event of a spill.
|Colin Angus, chief technology officer and co-founder of Open Ocean Robotics at the company’s Vancouver Island Technology Park location. (Jake Romphf/News Staff)|
Julie said they want to make collecting ocean data sustainable and accessible to everyone.
“It’s something that really drives us as a company and us as a team because we know that we’re in a cutting-edge area of technology that’s innovating in a number of ways,” she said.
“This has the ability to really make an impact in how we protect our ocean, how we understand them and how we operate sustainably on them.”
Julie and Colin’s inspiration for the company came from when they crossed the Atlantic on a small boat, braving two hurricanes along the voyage.
Colin said using their boats for things like research purposes can be 95 per cent cheaper than using a crewed ship.
“It’s really quite exciting to see what potential there is and the number of different things the boats can do,” he said.
The couple sees a big future in enforcing Canada’s coastline, which is the world’s longest.
“You can imagine a fleet of boats like (ours) patrolling Canadian waters around the entire perimeter, getting that full situational awareness,” Colin said.
“We’re working on a way of protecting our oceans, but unless you have a way to enforce them, it’s meaningless,” Julie said.