It’s been over a year since COVID-19 was first declared a pandemic and the world as we know it ended. Border closures, work from home, supply chain issues, fear were some of the challenges we’ve all faced the last 12 months. Now as vaccine immunizations gain momentum, there is light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s still unclear what post-pandemic life will look like. We are a different world than we were.
The pandemic has forced our Open Ocean Robotics team to adjust our business, evaluate priorities, and think more about the role we play in supporting our team, community and this industry. Despite the challenges, our technology has advanced, our company has grown and we are in a much stronger place than we were a year ago.
In 2020 we conducted three pilots with customers, showcasing our solar-powered drone for marine mammal monitoring, hydrographic surveying, and illegal fishing enforcement. We raised a pre-seed round and secured substantial grant funding from NRC-IRAP, WIL and Innovate BC. We graduated from Creative Destruction Lab and were one of three companies selected for the Offshore Wind Challenge with Greentown Labs, Vineyard Wind and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. We received the Solar Impulse Label, made the Emerging Rocket Cleantech List and I received the Innovator of the Year Award from BC Business. Our team grew to 10 full time people plus another four co-op and graduate students.
A way to help end illegal fishing
Illegal fishing is responsible for 30% of the fish caught and costs society $32 billion a year. It devastates ecosystems, harms commercial fisheries and destroys livelihoods. The expansiveness of the oceans make it difficult and costly to adequately monitor so most regions of the ocean are like unsafe communities without neighbourhood watch or law enforcement. Crime goes unseen and unpunished, yet we all suffer the consequences.
Autonomous boats can play a role in ending that and we were honoured to take part in an initiative to validate and demonstrate that. Funded by a non-profit agency and working alongside NOAA, California Fish & Wildlife and marine protected area (MPA) managers this initiative evaluated three autonomous robotic solutions in a multi-day pilot. Using a range of sensors we demonstrated how we can detect, track and identify illegal fishing vessels. We can alert enforcement agents in real-time and continue to collect information on the offender that can be used as evidence for prosecution and to better prepare the authorities for confronting the vessel. We can provide a constant presence in remote areas with the ability to stay in these regions for months at a time, continuously monitoring the waters. Because our boat is solar-powered, it doesn’t need to be refuelled and its self-righting capabilities enable it to endure the most severe storms where repeated capsizes occur. The evaluation committee concluded that our boat is a strong solution for illegal fishing enforcement and natural resource management and that we did a “particularly nice job of demonstrating the use of many sensor types across a range of fishing contexts”.
This demonstration enabled us to gain traction in helping to secure and monitor oceans against illegal activity and in 2021 we will continue this work with additional projects in combating illegal fishing and other ocean security threats.
A way to protect endangered whales
We share the ocean with a range of remarkable marine life and perhaps whales are some of the most revered and iconic species. Unfortunately many whales are at risk and even critically endangered, and humans are still part of the problem. Human activity on the ocean causes whales to be hit by ships and creates noise pollution which compromises how whales communicate and find food. We need to safely share this space and we can do that by creating better tools to monitor marine mammals in the ocean.
We were one of three companies selected for the Offshore Wind Challenge, an 8-month initiative between Vineyard Wind and Greentown Labs to find real-time solutions for monitoring marine life. Vineyard Wind is building the first commercial-sized offshore wind farm in the US and protecting the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, which live in those waters. In order to do that we used our autonomous boat to listen for whales. We integrated an acoustic array and processor into our boat and optimized it so that we created very little noise and could hear vocalizations from a long way away. The JASCO Applied System acoustic technology we used was also able to identify when a sound heard was from a whale and even the whale species, all in real-time on our boat. We could then send alerts to shore, providing the ability to know in real-time when whales are in the water so appropriate action can be taken.
The way ahead
While last year was all about advancing our technology and demonstrating its capabilities with customers in pilot trials, 2021 is focused on making that technology commercially robust and putting it in the hands of more customers. We’re still early in our life as a startup, a little more than two years old, and like a toddler we’re developing rapidly, reaching our milestones and eager to take on the world. We’ve flourished despite the challenges created by the pandemic and we’re ready to help build a more sustainable post-COVID world.