Hundreds of floating robots could soon surveil the oceans

A deal between Boeing and Liquid Robotics, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, means fleets of seafaring robots will augment existing military aircraft and ships in monitoring the seas.

Boeing and Liquid Robotics plan to produce seafaring robots that can surveil the sea around the clock, augmenting existing systems. Liquid Robotics

Boeing and Liquid Robotics today announced a partnership to make water-borne robots that can handle a variety of surveillance jobs, ranging from hunts for submarines to the detection of drug traffickers.

Silicon Valley's Liquid Robotics is the manufacturer of the Wave Glider SV3, a $300,000 self-powered, seafaring data center that offers customers -- until now, mostly researchers and marine industry companies -- tools for investigating the open seas for months at a time. SV3s have a hybrid propulsion system that can drive the robot with either solar or wave power. Boeing is the world's second-largest defense contractor.

The new deal is aimed at augmenting Boeing's existing maritime surveillance systems -- airplanes like the P-8 submarine hunter and the Maritime Surveillance Aircraft -- with autonomous devices that can monitor the seas 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, according to Gary Gysin, CEO of Liquid Robotics. The deal, likely to be worth many hundreds of millions of dollars, "makes the company," Gysin said. Among the many options the substantial new revenue gives Liquid Robotics is a possible future IPO, Gysin added.

Liquid Robotics first introduced the Wave Glider in 2011. Depending on the sensors deployed on the maritime robots, they can monitor large areas of the sea at the surface and can detect acoustically down to depths of 8,000 meters.

The Boeing partnership is the company's second major deal. In 2012, Liquid Robotics teamed up with Schlumberger Oil and Gas, the world's-largest oil services company, to form Liquid Robotics Oil and Gas. Customers include Conoco Phillips, Chevron, BP and others.

A Wave Glider, deployed off a boat. Liquid Robotics

Gysin explained that Wave Gliders would likely be put to sea in fleets of hundreds or thousands, together acoustically sensing both below and on the surface, and transmitting what they find to Boeing aircraft or other vessels. Surveillance aircraft and ships "are expensive, and patrolling is like looking for needles in a haystack," said Gysin. "If you have fleets of Wave Gliders, doing the mundane [sea scanning], we can transmit [what they find] to the more valuable assets, and they can go interdict."

Added Egan Greenstein, senior director of autonomous maritime systems at Boeing -- a brand-new division -- "what you're seeing with the Liquid Robotics agreement is our efforts at stitching together what were standalone capabilities, successful on their own, into a network of solutions that can do maritime security. That network is more scalable, affordable and persistent, and we think it breaks open the maritime surveillance market for a lot of customers that didn't know how they were going to solve these problems in the maritime space."

Greenstein explained that Boeing is likely to sell Wave Glider technology and services to both "defense and civil agencies," meaning organizations like the US Navy and Coast Guard, as well as foreign governments.

While the Wave Glider fleets will be helpful in detecting offensive threats, both Boeing and Liquid Robotics expect them to aid governments in tracking human or drug traffickers; island or border disputes; fish poachers; and other economic threats. "Every nation with a coastline wants to see a little bit further what's going on," Greenstein said. "That's a very expensive endeavor to do persistently."

Greenstein added that though the Liquid Robotics technology is not cheap, it adds a cost-effective method for more fully monitoring the seas.

Ultimately, that's the major promise of the Wave Glider technology: giving its users the ability to watch the seas at all times. With current surveillance systems, Greenstein said, it's too expensive to do that, meaning there are long stretches where no one is watching.

"What we're building with the Liquid Robotics product and technology," Greenstein said, "is the ability to put a grid of sensors out into the water, that can stay for....months or years, and put sensors on those that can act as an extension of the eyes and ears of military commanders."

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