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Ocean-faring Robot Cashes in on Offshore Oil and Gas

Liquid Robotics raised $45 million to build out its fleet of self-propelled marine robots.

Liquid Robotics is betting that autonomous vehicles will emerge as the best way to troll the oceans to gather data. 

Rugged: A Wave Glider half way on its trip from San Francisco to Japan. Credit: Liquid Robotics.

The Silicon Valley-based company yesterday raised $45 million in a series E round to grow the company’s sales and services around what it calls “high-value ocean data services” in research, defense, and oil and gas exploration.

Its Wave Glider marine robot, which resembles a stubby surfboard from below, can run for months to monitor ocean conditions, such as weather, current speed, and water temperature and salinity. Last December, it set a world record by completing a 9,000 nautical mile journal across the Pacific Ocean in a trip that lasted over a year. The company says it has over 150 deployed at sea.

Its data-gathering sensors, GPS, and on-board computers are powered by two standard solar panels attached to the board’s surface. Its ability to propel itself is done by a series of fins attached to a cable about 20 feet below the board. As the waves move up and down, the fins flex back and forth and move the vehicle forward. Because it’s connected to a satellite network, it can be piloted remotely.

The robots are used for taking marine data for researchers or to monitor locations, such as harbors, for security. Liquid Robotics has also found a willing audience of customers in the oil and gas industry to aid in offshore exploration. Last year, the company set up a joint venture with Schlumberger called Liquid Robotics Oil and Gas based in Houston, Texas. 

Torpedo-shaped remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) have been used with people on ships for years to survey undersea regions before drilling or to monitor equipment, such as pipelines. The Wave Glider is less expensive to operate, since it doesn’t require a boat to be deployed, and can operate for longer periods, the company says. Its sensors can gather oceanographic data, such as wave height, and detect seeps of existing wells.

In the field of scientific research, too, the Wave Glider’s ability to roam autonomously for months without having to refuel could transform how oceanographic experiments are conducted, since battery life on AUVs is a serious limitation. But given the deep pockets of the oil and gas industry, autonomous marine robots may find their biggest customer surveying the seas for drillers.

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