Autonomous underwater robots could change oceanography

Data-as-a-Service from the sea bed? That's the aim of a new startup.
17 December 2019

Model of the bathyscaphe “Mir-1″in Oceanarium in Vladivostok (not related to Terradepth). Source: Shutterstock

One of the key advantages of autonomous vehicles in working environments is their ability the exceed the limits of what’s safely possible for human workers.

That underlies the work carried out by developers of self-driving truck technology— which could add safety by reducing the risk of driver fatigue on long-haul routes— while autonomous maintenance drones can be deployed to inhospitable environments, such as the top of a wind turbine in the North Sea.

The mysterious, perilous depths of our oceans are logical places, then, to turn to autonomous vehicle technology.

As far back as 2016, Boeing’s 51-foot Echo Voyager was developed to autonomously gather data underwater for scientific and military purposes— its “hybrid rechargeable power system” allowed it to keep going for months if necessary.

While 95 percent of the oceans remain unexplored, the expense of such technology is well out of the range of most researchers; even remote-controlled submarines carry eye-wateringly high price points that make them inaccessible to most.

That’s why a new startup sees a big opportunity in developing autonomous submersible robots that can provide access to deep-ocean information on a data-as-a-service basis.

The Texas-based Terradepth has raised $US8 million in new funding, in a bid to realize its vision of “cost-effective, high-resolution deep ocean data for any customer who wants to make informed, ecologically responsible decisions regarding the world’s ocean.”

The company claims using “cutting edge” machine learning and autonomous vehicle technology has completely removed the requirement for humans at sea— making operational costs a lot lower than other providers which may offer unmanned (but not fully-autonomous) vehicles.

According to its website, services will span geophysical surveys— including hydrographic surveys, route surveys, environmental and habitat surveys, and seep detection— as well as for inspections and monitoring and forecasting. Potential customers, therefore, range between members of the oil industry, scientific organizations, and energy firms.

Terradepth says it will be able to offer ‘blockchain-protected’ raw data from its vehicles or receive data processed by the firm’s own machine learning analytics software, or processed via other cloud-based third-party analytics software.

According to TechCrunch, the vehicles work in a fleet by alternating between the deep ocean and the surface, where the underwater robot will transmit data to another recharging on the surface, which will then pass on the data to satellites for relaying back to customers “from shore, ship, or aircraft.”

Terradepth hopes to trial its autonomous data subs by Summer 2020.