// SOUTH PACIFIC // PITCAIRN ISLANDS

Gliding to Secure Oceans

How a side project to design an environmentally friendly technology to record the "singing" of Humpback whales turned into a revolution of fuel-free autonomous power on our oceans.

By Ariella Knight

It Started with a Song

In 2003, Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist, Joe Rizzi, set off to capture the songs or “singing” of the Humpback Whales during their migration to the Hawaiian Islands. Through the Jupiter Research Foundation, the non-profit foundation he founded focused on applying new technologies for environmental monitoring, he worked to engineer a device that could last in the water for months, was environmentally friendly and did not use fuel.  After limited success, he enlisted the support of a family friend, Derek Hine and his son, Roger Hine, a mechanical engineer and robotics expert. Curious and eager for new opportunities, Roger took on the task as a side project. Little did he know how far this side project would take him in revolutionizing autonomous power on our oceans. 

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society
Little did founder Roger Hine know how far this side project would take him in revolutionizing autonomous power on our oceans.

Ignorance Truly Was Bliss

New to the oceans but well versed in robotics, Roger Hine quickly realized that for any tool to last autonomously on our oceans, it would need to generate its own power while at sea. Power has been notoriously problematic when it comes to operating unmanned vehicles in our oceans. The vastness and remoteness of the oceans, the limited lifespans of traditional lithium batteries and a difficult operating environment have all compounded to make power supply at sea an enormous barrier to expanding the role of unmanned systems on our oceans. 

Here is the advantage of bringing a new thinker like Hine into the equation: Hine didn’t really know the true difficulty of the problem he was attempting to solve. He simply realized that the most reliable way to record whale songs over the course of four, six and twelve months, would be a tool that depended on renewable sources of energy. This fresh, optimistic outlook and the newness of Hine to the ocean technology world may have been the key ingredients for his success. “If I had known more about how difficult it is to operate in the ocean,” reflects Hine today, “I don’t think we would have tried it.” 

And thus Hine decided to design an unmanned maritime vehicle that would survive exclusively on resources that are always available and found in abundance – waves and sunlight. Whether or not Hine realized that he was embarking on a journey which, if successful, could revolutionize our ability to protect, monitor and learn about our oceans writ large, remains unknown. What is clear in hindsight is that he was on the path to doing it.

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society
“If I had known more about how difficult it is to operate in the ocean,” reflects Hine today, “I don’t think we would have tried it.”

The Gauntlet is Thrown 

Prototype after prototype and failure upon failure, Hine and his team laboriously worked to build a platform that could survive on a sun-and-wave diet alone. After much trial and error, Hine and his team emerged triumphant with their best and final prototype the “Wave Glider®,” appearing to successfully operate powered by renewables alone. 
At this point, news of Hine and the Wave Glider had gotten around. Various actors both within and outside of the environmental community wanted to use this tool - if it worked - for purposes far beyond whale songs. The pressure on the young technology was high. 

While some on Hine’s team may have preferred a simple test for their prototype, Hine had other ideas. After pitching the technology in its earliest iteration, Hine was approached by what he described as a “salt of the earth” environmentalist, who told Hine disparagingly that the Wave Glider “would never take off” because the environmentalist community “is too conservative” for such an innovative tool. 

Not deterred at the suggestion that his tool was doomed to fail and haunted by the idea of technology innovation failing to be used by one of the communities that needed it most, Hine decided to go for gold – or the Guinness, rather. Therefore, Hine and his team - now enshrined in a Company named Liquid Robotics® - sent four Wave Gliders on a journey across the entirety of the Pacific Ocean in 2011 on their own dime. On February 14, 2013, the Wave Glider officially set a Guinness world record for traveling over 9,000 nautical miles from California all the way to Australia, and surviving a Category 4 hurricane along the way.

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society
On February 14, 2013, the Wave Glider officially set a Guinness world record for traveling over 9,000 nautical miles from California all the way to Australia, and surviving a Category 4 hurricane along the way.

Gotta Catch ‘Em All

Having earned its chops, the Wave Glider took the maritime market by storm. As an all-purpose platform, some of Liquid Robotics’ first customers have been far outside of the environmental community – military and oil and gas exploration companies to name a few. However, as Hine explained, conservation is the “pillar of the company,” and “where we focus our energy and our heart.” Thus since its earliest days, the Wave Glider has been hard at work fighting the good fight to monitor our ocean environments and protect their precious resources. 

In fact, the Wave Glider’s first illegal fishing deployment took place in arguably the most remote Marine Protected Area (MPA) in existence: the Pitcairn Islands. This largely uninhabited South Pacific island chain whose main island, Pitcairn, is often referred to derisively as a “lump of rock,” is a British Overseas Territory located a whopping 3300 miles away from its neighbor New Zealand. 
In January 2016, Liquid Robotics partnered with the United Kingdom government and UK-based satellite data company Catapult Satellite Applications to deploy the Wave Glider to surveil Pitcairn Island’s MPA. Over the course of four months, the test would assess how accurate the Wave Glider was in working with Catapult to detect vessels and illegal incursions in the 324,000 square mile marine protected area.  

Initial testing yielded incredible results. The Wave Glider was able to detect vessel noises across 18 nautical miles with underwater hydrophones, and was able to successfully communicate and work with satellite data during the entirety of the operation. One final task remained: getting the Wave Glider home. Since it was enormously expensive for Liquid Robotics to get operators out to the remote Pitcairn Islands, it dawned on Hine that it was time to “let the robot be the robot,” and complete the entire journey to Pitcairn Islands unchaperoned. The Company therefore programmed the Wave Gliders to travel 3000 miles home to their base in Hawaii while operators kicked their feet up at home. 

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society
The Wave Glider was able to detect vessel noises across 18 nautical miles with underwater hydrophones, and was able to successfully communicate and work with satellite data during the entirety of the operation.

A New Era

The success of the Pitcairn Islands mission demonstrated to Liquid Robotics, the United Kingdom and the entire illegal fishing community the potential for unmanned systems in conducting persistent monitoring and surveillance missions to combat illegal fishing. With Wave Gliders in operation for nearly a decade at this point, and more than 370 systems traversing a cumulative 1.2 million nautical miles  (not to mention 17 hurricane class storms under their belts), Liquid Robotics has fully arrived on the illegal fishing scene, and is ready to make history.

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society
Liquid Robotics has fully arrived on the illegal fishing scene, and is ready to make history.

Technologies Used

// UNMANNED SURFACE VESSELS (USV)

Wave Glider

The Wave Glider by Liquid Robotics is a hybrid wave and solar powered unmanned surface vehicle designed to help protect exclusive economic zones and marine protected areas from illegal fishing as well as to perform environmental science research and monitoring – all while powered only by mother nature.

Product Details Unmanned Surface Vessels (USV)
// NORTH PACIFIC // HAWAII

Can you hear me now?

A university lab designs underwater microphones to listen for and detect illegal fishing and incursions into MPAs By Ariella Knight

// MIDDLE EAST / ISRAEL

Warden of the Seas

Two sailors walk into a bar. The topic of the evening? Transparency on our oceans. By Ariella Knight and Kaila Harris

// GET IN TOUCH

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© Secure Oceans 2016