Ocean drones could patrol California coast

Tuesday, November 18, 2014
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Bay Area researchers could start using sea-going drones to track a variety of threats ranging from a storm to terrorist attacks.

SUNNYVALE, Calif. -- Bay Area researchers are using the Wave Glider, sea-going drones, to track the movement of Great White sharks. Now, its mission may soon be expanding to include a different kind of predator, according to its manufacturer Liquid Robotics.

"Their vision is to create a system that's sea floor to space, that can monitor all kinds of different things," says the company's Chief Executive Officer Gary Gysin.

The Sunnyvale company has just joined forces with aerospace giant Boeing Corporation to create a kind of sea going security fence.

"You can start with surface vessel detection. There's a lot of human trafficking, there's illegal fish poaching, drug trafficking, things of this nature," Gysin points out.

Instead of a motor, the Wave Gliders employ a rack of underwater wings that harness the motion of ocean swells to propel it forward. Solar panels on the deck power sophisticated equipment and on-board computers.

Designer Roger Hine says the combination amounts to a nearly unsinkable communications platform that can stay at sea for months at a time.

"It's the ability to stay out there for long periods of time that really sets us apart from what's been done before," Hine believes.

He says the newest version is now fitted with a thruster that can power the Wave Glider in calm waters, and help steer it more effectively. Other innovations include sophisticated software that allows the vessel to recognize and remember obstacles. The strategy envisions small fleets of ocean going drones outfitted with cameras, a listening device, and real-time satellite communications.

John Tozzi is a retired Rear Admiral with the U.S. Coast Guard, now advising the company.

"What this technology gives us the opportunity to do is augment our force, particularly in network fashion which it will be, is to augment our force in such a way that we get, I guess what we say in the vernacular is more bang for the buck," Tozzi believes.

Since the electronics are rechargeable, the company says Wave Gliders could patrol borders and shipping lanes for months at a time, providing an early warning for threats ranging from storms to drug trafficking to terrorism.

"What we can do with our technology is detect surface vessels that are in an area, and let our country know that, hey, somebody is in your border, and you may want to go interdict and check it out," says Gysin.

The company's goal is to deploy a fleet of surface detection drones known as Sentinals off the coast of California within a year.

Written and produced by Tim Didion.