Series | Challengers

Can robots save our oceans from poachers?

23% of fish sold in the US is caught illegally. This robot boat is a poacher’s worst nightmare.

Earth’s oceans are almost unthinkably enormous. They cover 75 percent of earth’s surface, they contain the majority of all life on earth and they are so deep and vast that we have explored only 20 percent of them. (We know more about the moon, a foreign celestial body than we do about the oceans on our planet.)

But it’s even harder to wrap our heads around the idea of an earth without a functioning ocean system. “Most of us can’t imagine what it will be like when the whole ocean system collapses,” says Colin Angus, CTO and cofounder Open Ocean Robotics, a tech startup that makes autonomous boats.

The effects of ocean collapse cannot be overstated. If our oceans fail, then humans will experience suffering on an unprecedented scale and life on earth, as we currently know it, ceases to exist. And that’s the future we face if we don’t do a better job of protecting our oceans.

“If our fish populations collapse, if we lose our biodiversity, people will starve.”

Colin Angus

That’s why Angus and his wife Julie co-founded Open Ocean Robotics. The company’s fleet of autonomous boats are designed to manlessly patrol the ocean, collecting a variety of data — everything from water temperature and salinity to echolocators that can detect the size of fish populations — in the hopes of creating safer practices for ocean-related industries.

“Our goal is to help industries operate sustainably on the ocean,” Julie says. “What we can’t measure, we can’t protect. What we can’t see, we can’t change. If we don’t understand the impacts we’re having on our oceans, we’ll never change our behavior.”

Oceans under threat

Earth’s oceans are under multiple threats. Overfishing threatens to deplete vital fish populations, which could have a cascading effect on the biodiversity of our entire planet. (If one fish species goes extinct, all of the species that rely on that species for food are at risk, and so and so on, up the entire food chain.) Acidification, a symptom of global warming, threatens the viability of all fish in the ocean, as well as coral and vital ocean vegetation. And trash and pollution in our oceans gets consumed by fish, killing them in droves.

Those are just the problems we know about. Only 20 percent of our oceans have been explored, meaning the chances for discovery and acquiring new knowledge, both good and bad, is seemingly limitless.

Saving the oceans is a Herculean task, which is why Open Ocean Robotics has embraced autonomous boating technology. There simply isn’t enough manpower available to effectively monitor the oceans, but autonomous boats don’t need human navigators. And because the autonomous boats are also entirely solar powered, they don’t even need to stop for refueling.

Currently, ocean monitoring is carried out by crude vessels, which pose serious risks to the ocean. They burn diesel, a fossil fuel that contributes to global warming. They are at risk of spilling oil into the ocean, and the loud noises they emit disrupt fish populations. Crude ships also require large crews and cost tens of thousands of dollars a day to operate.

“That means you can’t collect data persistently and in challenging areas and with minimal amount of environmental impact.”

Julie Angus

Replacing a crude vessel for just one week is the greenhouse gas equivalent of removing 100 cars from the streets for an entire year.

A labor of love

Open Ocean Robotics was born out of the Anguses’ deep love for the ocean. The Canadian couple once spent five months traversing the Atlantic Ocean in a row boat, making them two of the only people to ever circumnavigate the planet by human power.

“Spending day after day surrounded by continuous ocean, you feel like you’re living in a different world,” Julie says. “You become very aware of the ocean and all of its states. That’s definitely had a lasting impact.”

That 30,000 mile voyage also engendered them to solar-powered boating. (The rowboat had an on-board navigation system powered by solar.)

The Open Ocean Robotics autonomous boat is a 250-pound that can go far offshore and weather the harshest waves and storms. The boat is outfitted with a variety of sensors that measure the weather, the depth of the ocean at a certain location and the health of marine life. The boats also have a speaker attached to warn surrounding vessels that they’re getting too close to whales or other endangered species.

This level of autonomy was made possible by advances in solar power capture and storage. The solar panels on top of the Open Ocean Robotics boat and the lithium batteries contained inside the autonomous boat allow it to be powered entirely by the sun.

“We’re making it easier, safer, more affordable for ocean industries to operate out there,” Julie says. “To protect our oceans from practices like illegal fishing, we have to have better technologies than we do right now, and autonomous technology really is our best bet at that.”

The boats are also fully sealed, making them impossible to sink.

“If you imagine a bottle with a cork in it, it’s not going to sink ever, unless it breaks,” Colin says. “If you look at a stormy situation, our boat is going to tumble off the waves, end over end.”

The autonomous boat is self-righting, using weights and buoyancy to go rightside up after experiencing choppy waters.

While Open Ocean Robotics is designed to serve industry, and provide them feedback on better ocean logistics practices, the ultimate goal is much grander.

The Anguses’ company exists to save our oceans, and thus the entire world.

“Oceans are our biggest carbon sink. We depend on them for food, transportation , communication, oxygen,” Julie says. “If we don’t stop the degradation it’s going to have a really deleterious effect on our health, the planet’s health and our economy.”

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