Where Data Depend on Catching a Wave

July 7, 2011 - via Wall Street Journal

Liquid Robotics
A Liquid Robotics wave glider is launched in the ocean, above. The robotic device is operated via remote control and transmits oceanographic data continuously via satellite.

Like many Silicon Valley start-ups, Liquid Robotics Inc. collects data and plans to let customers access the information over the Web. But the company's product stands apart: It makes remote-controlled robotic devices that gather information while cruising the open ocean.

The contraptions, called wave gliders, can keep track of all sorts of water-related things, including whale songs, wave heights and the presence of nearby ships. Liquid Robotics sells them for between $150,000 and $500,000 apiece, depending on optional components, to energy companies, the government and research institutions. Eventually, the Sunnyvale company wants to deploy enough robots so that it can become a one-stop shop for oceanographic data that customers can pay to tap online.

"It's a dawn of an era of ocean-based data that today doesn't exist in any meaningful way," said Alan Salzman, chief executive of VantagePoint Capital Partners, which recently invested in the company and sits on the board.

Liquid Robotics
Tethered 23 feet below the float in the water is a similarly sized glider that converts wave energy into forward propulsion.

The wave glider features a 6-foot, 10-inch-long floating section equipped with solar panels, a battery and sensors. Tethered 23 feet below the float in the water is a similarly sized glider with metal wings and a rudder that propel and steer the device.

Roger Hine, who invented the glider, originally did so for a family friend who wanted to track whales along the coasts of Hawaii. Starting in 2005, Mr. Hine spent about a year on the project, taking every other week off from his job as a semiconductor engineer. He experimented with different electric-engine-powered designs. Nothing worked. Eventually, he came up with a non-motorized model that harnesses the natural energy in waves, similar to the way a sailboat harnesses the wind.

The glider's wings and rudders use the ocean's up-and-down motion to move the device. The glider averages about 1.5 miles an hour. Signals that operators transmit by satellite instruct the wave glider where to go, relying on GPS data. Gliders can't remain stationary but are able to cross back and forth over the same point.

Deciding there was commercial potential for the device, Mr. Hine founded Liquid Robotics in January 2007. For much of the first two years the company focused on perfecting its product. In January 2009, a wave glider completed a nine-day circumnavigation of Hawaii's Big Island. Later that year a pair of gliders traveled from Hawaii to San Diego, an 82-day trip that covered more than 2,500 miles. Another glider lasted a full year in the waters off Hawaii.

Still, when Mr. Hine first spoke to venture capitalists about his company in 2009 he was met with "a lot of puzzlement," he said. Mr. Hine ended up raising $10 million from a group of angel investors, wealthy individuals who invest in promising start-ups.

A big break came with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill last year. Self-powered vehicles that could measure water quality were in demand. Liquid Robotics deployed five from a boat off the coast of Biloxi, Miss., on behalf of BP PLC. The devices collected information on water quality and marine life for the oil company. The incident also brought the company to the attention of oil and gas companies, a potentially large customer base.

Last month, the company announced it had raised $22 million in an investment round led by VantagePoint. It also hired a new chief executive, Bill Vass, a former Sun Microsystems Inc. executive with a military background that includes experience with submarines.

So far, the company says it has sold about 60 gliders and has an additional dozen of its own in the water. The company expects 2011 revenue of $13 million to $14 million but declined to say whether it is profitable.

In a nod to tech-industry trends, Mr. Vass said Liquid Robotics hopes to manage hundreds or thousands of gliders itself and just sell clients the information they collect. That way, a single glider could collect, say, water chemistry data for an oil company and ship-traffic information for the military. The company doesn't believe there are any legal restrictions on placing its devices in the ocean.

Liquid Robotics
Wave gliders can keep track of all sorts of water-related things, including whale songs, wave heights and the presence of nearby ships.

Because the gliders are essentially floating platforms that can be programmed to go anywhere, there are many possible uses. They can measure ocean and air temperature to help predict storms and water currents and wave height for shippers trying to determine the safest route for their vessels. They also can help oceanographers monitor whales and other aquatic life. In crowded areas like the Gulf of Mexico, gliders could collect location, speed and destination information for ships—information that now is sent through radio signals—and display the information on a map.

There are less obvious uses as well. Mr. Vass imagines equipping gliders with cellular towers to provide coverage in the middle of oceans. Also, gliders could be programmed to dispense fish food, creating fish farms that move around at sea.

Liquid Robotics isn't the only company that makes unmanned sea vehicles for data collection. iRobot Corp., creator of the Roomba vacuum cleaner, makes a glider that collects information up to 3,000 feet under water, surfacing from time to time to transmit its findings and collect new instructions. The Slocum glider from Teledyne Technologies Inc. works in a similar way. Both gliders can collect information from far deeper in the ocean than the one from Liquid Robotics, but aren't able to transmit data continuously.

The robotic technology has attracted the interest of government scientists.

"We don't know if this is going to work, but it has great promise" said Christian Meinig, director of engineering at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. Mr. Meinig plans to use a Liquid Robotics wave glider to study ice floes in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska later this year. Currently, that work is done by buoys and boats. Buoys are stationary, so can survey only a limited stretch of water. Boats cost from $15,000 a day for an average-size research vessel to $75,000 a day for a big icebreaker. While emphasizing that the devices are still new, Mr. Meinig said that with wave gliders, there is a chance to "do things in a cost-effective way and still provide high-quality data."

External link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304803104576427920352513868.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

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Author:Ben Worthen