Building robots that brave the ocean
Liquid Robotics’ fleet of unmanned autonomous ocean robots, called Wave Gliders use the ocean’s endless supply of wave energy for propulsion. They exploit the difference in the motion between the ocean surface that constantly oscillates and its relatively motionless water twenty feet below the surface. Inspired to capture the sounds of Humpback Whales—one of the most agile creatures in the ocean—the Wave Glider consists of three parts (i) the ‘float’ that moves on the surface of the ocean with waves (ii) ‘the umbilical that connects the float to (iii) the submerged wave engine that transfers this motion into forward propulsion. “At our testing facility located in Kamuela, one of the biggest Hawaiian coasts, these winged robots come alive as soon as we drop them into the ocean. The float begins to move forward and the wings begin their continuous back and forth articulation” remarks Gysin. “This wing rack below the surface provides tremendous torque (up to 2000 lb), allowing towing of up to one ton of mass behind the Wave Glider,” he adds.
”At our testing facility located in Kamuela, one of the biggest Hawaiian coasts, these winged creatures come alive as soon as dropped into the ocean. It is magical to see these wings articulate like fins. We fondly call them ocean robots”
Complementing these long endurance swimmers are the software and systems loaded on the ‘float’— that help control fleets of Wave Gliders for safe, autonomous and successful completion of their mission. The set-up also drives the collection, interpretation, communication and delivery of information to the command centre.
Wave Gliders come with the Regulus Operating Environment which acts as the brain of the robot, managing all the command and control functions. Similarly, the Sensor Management Computer manages the functions and data from all the sensors and payloads, and the Wave Glider Management System (WGMS) is the web application helping to pilot the robots remotely. Finally, the Data Services Environment is the cloud-based infrastructure managing the flow of data from the Wave Glider to pilots, technicians, and data analysts who are using the software applications in ‘real-time’. “We have built a software infrastructure that not only allows us to remotely control these robots but also facilitates transmission of new commands or code to the platform when mission objectives change,” remarks Gysin. “In fact, any device from an iPad to a laptop to a smart phone can be used as a command centre to not only direct the fleet of these ocean robots but also to get information delivered to the devices being used by the defense operations commander, oil & gas operator, researcher, or scientist,” he adds.
“We are bridging something that hasn't been bridged before. Our Wave Gliders can roam ocean, face its dangerous environments and keep transmitting the necessary data and finally doesn’t drain the customer’s money”
We have built a software infrastructure that not only allows us to remotely pilot these robots but also can facilitate the download of additional software to the platform when mission objectives are changed
Liquid Robotics leverages the endless supply of solar energy through its Adaptable Modular Power System (AMPS) technology that is specifically tailored to support various types of energy sources and multiple power-hungry sensor payloads, all working concurrently. “AMPS always ensure that there is enough energy reserved to support navigation, computing and communications,” says Gysin.
“Just designing the robots to swim for a year and transmit data is not enough—they also need to brave the extremes of the ocean,” says Gysin. “Wave Gliders have faced over 16 hurricanes, typhoons with sixty five foot waves and winds that blow at 150 knots and yet keep working,” he adds. In November 2011, Liquid Robotics put Wave Gliders to a test. Four Wave Gliders set out from San Francisco Bay to begin a two-fold mission: gather data about the oceans' and provide the data for free to the world’s explorers and two, an endurance test to be the first unmanned ocean robot to cross the World’s largest ocean, the Pacific. The vessels were launched in pairs, with one set headed for Australia and the other to Japan. After facing Typhoon Freda, a category 4 typhoon on the east coast of Australia, the Wave Glider kept transmitting data, the first of these unmanned gliders, reached the land of Oz—on the way setting the Guinness World Record for the "longest distance travelled by an autonomous unmanned surface vehicle” – over 14,000 kilometres in just over one year. Also, the navigational abilities of these unmanned swimming robots received wide spread appreciation— one was named ‘Papa Mau’ after Pius "Mau" Piailug, a Micronesian navigator from the Carolinian island of Satawal, best known as a teacher of traditional, non-instrument wayfinding methods for distant ocean voyages. He was the first ocean robot to cross the Pacific. His teammate, Benjamin, named after Benjamin Franklin who aside from being a famous statesman and diplomat was the oceanographer who discovered and named the Gulf Stream Current. It was Benjamin who received the Guinness World Record. “Now we don’t have to tell the world what we are—the world record and the way Wave Gliders braved conquered the Pacific, speaks for us,” extols Gysin.
“Such an ability brings forth many advantages,” says Gysin. For instance, with many island disputes and maritime issues Indonesia—which has 75 percent of its territory ocean-based with 7,000 islands and thousands of fishing villages–entirely depends on the ocean for their livelihood. The country faces a huge problem patroling and monitoring illegal fishing in their jurisdiction. “They have only 27 patrol boats and it is simply impossible to manage that large of an area,” says Gysin. “The Indonesian ministry then sought Liquid Robotics to address these issues. The Wave Gliders, sailing the coasts of Indonesian waters formed a well established network the provided knowledge and the intelligence about the vessels that might be doing illegal fishing.”
Networking the oceans
“The way ocean data is collected today squares off to three methods—satellites, ships, and ocean buoys,” says Gysin. Exploring the ocean with ships requires thousands of gallons of fuel, a large crew, and a lot of time spent traveling between mission location and port. “Along with these issues comes cost, the whole expedition may run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars every day,” states Gysin. Also, placing sensors on the seafloor comes with its’ own set of issues and costs—immobile and only possible for very specific use cases, they are not dynamic when missions inevitably encounter changing requirements. Some of these seafloor sensors can only transmit acoustically— making buoys a requirement for communications with satellites or manned assets. However, the ocean buoys are also immobile and costs easily run into the millions of dollars annually for a single location. For instance there is only one tsunami monitoring buoy between Japan and the US coastline — validating the idea that it’s just not affordable —“We are bridging something that hasn't been bridged before. Our Wave Gliders can roam the ocean, face its extreme environments and keep transmitting data in real-time and it won’t actually drain the customers’ limited budgets,” remarks Gysin.
“Wave Glider SV3, our most recent platform is effectively a fully autonomous floating server rack, a system the company built as the Amazon Web Services of the open ocean,” says Gysin. It is designed with a data centre architecture enabling multiple users with data collection and analysis capabilities executed concurrently—all entirely independent of one another. And because the computers are built with enough power to do most of the processing locally, the new Wave Glider SV3s send back pre-processed, analyzed data rather than voluminous amounts of raw data that’s only analyzed once back onshore.
Bringing competitive advantage to the customers
In 2011, NOAA PMEL, an interdisciplinary oceanographic and atmospheric science organization, partnered with Liquid Robotics to deploy Wave Gliders in the Arctic to collect surface temperature measurements during the ice-free late summer months in the Beaufort Sea. Two Wave Gliders together covered over 2,700 nautical miles, recording and transmitting nearly 900,000 temperature measurements, forming a data set that showed the variation in warm nature of the Beaufort Sea. Diagnostic photos were captured by a camera on the deck of the Wave Glider to better understand the local conditions near the ice-edge. Over the course of the mission, continuous in-situ (surface) temperature observations from the Wave Gliders far exceeded the intermittent satellite-derived data. “The Wave Gliders demonstrated that high-quality temperature measurements from the upper ocean can be collected by robotic platforms in a harsh environment and transmitted in real time,” says Gysin.
Partnering with technology leaders to boost innovations
Liquid Robotics works with industry-leading sensor partners and system integrators to validate solutions solving its customers’ marine environmental, defence and resource problems. One recent partnership is Boeing— one of the world's largest defence contractors. The partnership is aimed at using Wave Gliders to perform a variety of surveillance jobs, ranging from hunting submarines to maritime awareness for weather conditions. The new deal is aimed at augmenting Boeing's existing maritime surveillance systems—like the P-8 and Maritime Surveillance Aircraft—with autonomous devices that monitor the ocean around the clock. “The goal of the partnership is to provide Boeing's customers with "the missing link" in a collection of tools that can now span from undersea depths into space,” says Gysin.
Similarly, Liquid Robotics and Ultra Electronics (USSI division), who design and develop advanced hydro-acoustic sensors and sensor systems, partnered to jointly develop a revolutionary and cost effective surveillance system for the global maritime security market. “This solution helps address the critical need for affordable, long duration, maritime surveillance of the world’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), ports and coastlines,” says Gysin.
Working towards bringing data analysis technology to explore oceans
Liquid Robotics was co-founded by Joe Rizzi, who was interested in streaming live Humpback Whale songs to his house on the Big Island of Hawaii. He enlisted his neighbour, Bob Burcham, to start the project with a kayak, hydrophone, pickle jar, and really long cable. Over the 7 years since its inception, Liquid Robotics has built the first ever unmanned, wave propelled surface vehicle and holds a Guinness World Record. “We have started to build the Wave Glider grids and sensor network. We believe that we can unravel the ‘unknown’ which the ocean still holds from us. We want to be remembered for our accomplishments like helping reverse climate change, detecting hostile submarines, and finding oil & gas deposits in the ocean,” says Gysin. “Going forward, we are bringing the data analysis perspective to the oceans and our ambition is to establish the best ocean network possible with these unmanned machines,” concludes Gysin.