Wave Glider AUV wins solutions contest

An unmanned ocean vehicle originally developed to monitor the songs of humpback whales is the winner of the inaugural $100,000 Gulfstream Navigator Award announced Friday at the Savannah Ocean Exchange event.

The Wave Glider, developed by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Liquid Robotics was chosen from among 10 finalists ranging from kite-pulled cargo ships to a process that couples desalination with cement production. About 100 business, government, conservation and education leaders from around the world did the choosing and in doing so were exposed to all the solutions.

Wave Glider AUV

Wave Glider AUV

“Ideas and concepts are important, but proven solutions need an outlet to gain traction in the marketplace,” said Joe Lombardo, executive vice president of Gulfstream parent General Dynamics. “The Exchange has brought great minds together and stimulated valuable dialog.”

The Wave Glider looks like a surfboard tied to a tier of underwater wings. While wave action powers its forward motion, solar panels power both monitoring devices onboard, as well as satellite transmission of their data. It’s largely autonomous but can be steered from any web interface. With no need for fuel, the duration of a Wave Glider’s mission is limited only by barnacles building up on its surface and creating drag. That takes about a year.

“Where it adds the most value is deep ocean exploration where (conventional) vessel time costs about $50,000 a day,” said Suneil Thomas, Liquid Robotic’s vice president of legal and government affairs. “You can’t do mooring or a buoy there. It’s too deep or too expensive.”

The cross pollination of ideas envisioned by the Savannah Ocean Exchange founders, including Cort Atkinson and Howard Morrison, is happening with the first winner.

“One of the most interesting things is how well many of the solutions can work together,” Thomas said.

Thomas has already begun collaborating with makers of a high resolution underwater video camera that the Wave Glider could tow. He also had discussions with the creator of Fishnet, an idea billed as the Facebook of science because it uses social networking to bring together environmental data.

“There’s no reason the Wave Glider can’t be a data source,” Thomas said.

Seventy-five Wave Gliders have already been sold, with an estimated 30 of them in the water now, Thomas said. Among the company’s customers is BP, which used the device after the Deepwater Horizon spill to monitor for crude oil and for toxic algal blooms.

Big names in marine research are also already sold on the device. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute is using it to ground truth ocean salinity data collected by satellite. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has employed a Wave Glider custom fitted with an ocean acidification sensor.

Despite these successes and a huge boost late last month when the developer of the Java programming language, James Gosling, left Google to join Liquid Robotics, the company is not yet profitable. Still, because it’s further along in its marketing than many of its competitors in the Solutions Exchange, the company made an unusual promise about its windfall.

“We’ll use 100 percent of the money for getting the Wave Glider into academic hands,” Thomas said.

Lombardo, a former Gulfstream president, said the company stepped up to sponsor the first Navigator Award in the hopes it will spur actionable ideas and more corporate support.

“We really liked the idea of a diverse group of people coming up with doable solutions,” he said. “Our hope is that the Ocean Exchange will help create a culture of appreciation for the beauty and benefits of the ocean while striking a balance with commerce.”

While Gulfstream will continue to support the Savannah Ocean Exchange in a variety of ways, it has not committed to the Navigator Award for next year.

“As a technology leader and one of the largest employers in the area, we wanted to step forward and sponsor the award to get things kick-started,” Lombardo said.

“We would anticipate and expect other major corporations to take a lead role going forward,” he said.