Editorial Feature

Collecting Ocean Data Using Wind and Solar-Powered Autonomous Boats

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The world’s oceans are full of information that could be used to study, protect and change how we treat and use them. Harvesting this information could help to protect vulnerable species, enable ships to take more fuel-efficient routes, put a stop to illegal fishing and improve understanding about the impacts of climate change.

The technology company Open Ocean Robotics collects this data using wind and solar-powered boats equipped with sensors, cameras and real-time communication devices to provide a safer and more environmentally friendly way to study the ocean than using fuel-dependent research vessels.

The instantly accessible information can be collected from anywhere in the ocean and the boats travel continuously, without generating any greenhouse gas emissions or risking any oil spills or noise pollution.

CEO and co-founder of Open Ocean Robotics, Julie Angus, believes the information that can potentially be pulled from the non-polluting boats could transform how ocean research is done.

“The ocean can be a harsh and costly environment to work and study in, with autonomous, un-crewed drones, we can improve safety and reduce costs while gathering excellent research data,” Julie Angus says.

Testing and Expanding the Capabilities of the Boats

Julie and husband Colin Angus, who co-founded the company, work alongside researchers, environmental regulators, governments, and organizations such as the Canadian Coast Guard, to test, develop and expand the capabilities of the boats. The boats can also be used in the commercial setting to improve fuel efficiency, enforce protective regulations, prevent illegal fishing and even locate and clean up oil spills. 

Award-Winning Founders and Company

Julie and Colin have taken part in various worldwide expeditions, including one where Julie became the first woman to row from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Julie has received the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Award and has also been named as one of Canada’s greatest Women Explorers. Before founding Open Ocean Robotics, she formed Angus Rowboats, which provides robotically-cut kits for various human-powered crafts and sailboats.

Adventurer and boat-designer Colin Angus, who has traveled more than 50,000 km by watercraft, has also received the National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year Award and has been listed as one of the World’s Top 25 Bold Visionaries by Outside Magazine.

In 2019, Open Ocean won NACO’s Most Promising Start-up Award and $100,000 in the Spring Impact Investor Challenge. The company, which is headquartered in Victoria, British Columbia, now plans to start pilots with Fisheries and Oceans Canada to track an endangered population of killer whales and conditions in the ocean.

Video Credit: New Ventures BC/YouTube.com

Improving Operations

The boats are capable of collecting vast amounts of different types of data, ranging from information about current, winds, tides, temperatures, and salinization through to data on habitat, pollution, fish and wildlife.

The applications of this data are also vast and include biological analysis, protection of endangered species, planning oil spill responses, navigation, locating illegal fishing, conserving vessel fuel, and understanding the impacts that climate change is having on oceans.

Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Boats currently generate 1000 megatons of GHG emissions every year, which is more than the amount emitted by the whole of Canada. Using real-time information to help plan more fuel-efficient routes would help boats conserve fuel and cut emissions. Removing one ocean research vessel from the sea for one week cuts the same amount of emissions as removing 100 cars from roads for a whole year.

One-fifth of all wild fish are caught illegally, earning poachers up to $30 billion per year. Open Ocean’s patrol boats could help to identify vessels that are operating illegally and safeguard protected areas.

The boats also monitor oil spills, leaks and intentional dumping that cause 700 million liters of oil to be poured into the sea every year. The boats could also help with oil spill clean-ups.

Furthermore, measuring changes in the ocean, such as temperature and current changes, acidification and sea level rises could help researchers better understand how to improve the health of marine ecosystems and coastal communities.

The Autonomous Boats

One of the company’s boats – the Force 12 Xplorer – uses a ridged wingsail design that is robust, reliable, and maximizes the wind direction that propels it. The boat is propelled entirely by wind, while a solar panel powers the sensors and communication devices. The hull and keel design provide stability and self-righting capabilities, which means the vessel endures even the most severe weather conditions such as hurricanes. It also moves well in light winds, offering excellent control and speeds.

Another boat – the Solar Explorer – has so far proved to be fast and robust at sea. Equipped with 1200 watts of solar paneling and lithium batteries, the vessel moves at an average speed of at least 4 knots across the day and night, and at almost twice that speed during shorter-term travel.

The solar-electric source provides an excellent way to power the vessel, enabling precise control and ample energy supply for sensors. Open Ocean’s innovative self-righting system ensures a seaworthy and optimal-performance vessel.  

Building the Business

Julie works with various researchers and organizations to improve the capabilities of the boats. She has received support from Foresight’s EiR Kirk Hamilton and the Foresight Launch Program, which helped to steer the business while it was in its initial stages.

"Kirk has exceptional expertise in building a business, in knowing how to set milestones and build the structures required to grow the business. That’s been invaluable for me as a technical founder," Julie Angus said.

So far, Open Ocean has tested the boats in the Pacific Ocean near Vancouver Island. The longest run to date has been a 54-hour continuous sail covering 74 kilometers. The journey took place during dark and rainy days in November, but the battery maintained 85% of its capacity by the end.

“We’ve demonstrated our vessel’s ability to voyage autonomously as well as remotely, go on multi-day missions, collect oceanographic data and transmit in by cellular or satellite communications,” says Angus.

Plans for 2020

Plans for 2020 include collecting data with the Canadian Coast Guard to map the floor of Lake Okanagan in British Columbia. Although this is an inland fjord lake, there is a worldwide initiative to map the entire ocean floor over the next 10 years and Open Ocean's vessels are ready to play an active role.

The Lake Okanagan project hopes to prove the economic viability of the vessels and expand the amount of data from different waterways that can be collected and analyzed.

Open Ocean Robotics will also work with Oceans and Fisheries Canada to gather data on weather, currents and temperatures.

Julie said that sea trials will be conducted this year during big winter storms, where the boats can be subjected to waves that are 50 ft or higher. “Our boat will repeatedly capsize during these conditions, but its self-righting design will enable it to continue operating.”

The boats are equipped with a whole suite of sensors that will measure their performance and how they fare in these conditions. “While we’ve tested its performance in simulated environments, there is no substitution for actually being in these epic waves and we’re excited to learn how it handles these waves,” says Julie.

References and Further Reading

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Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally has a Bachelor's Degree in Biomedical Sciences (B.Sc.). She is a specialist in reviewing and summarising the latest findings across all areas of medicine covered in major, high-impact, world-leading international medical journals, international press conferences and bulletins from governmental agencies and regulatory bodies. At News-Medical, Sally generates daily news features, life science articles and interview coverage.

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