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We welcome our new solar-powered, ocean-going robot overlords

Silicon Valley startup Liquid Robotics said today that it has raised $45 million in new funding to expand its fleet of autonomous solar-and-wave powered robots that are roaming the world’s oceans collecting data for oil companies, climate scientists and the US military.

The robots are called Wave Gliders, and the company, which has now raised a total of $85 million, is worth watching for how the confluence of robotics, big data, and cloud computing is reshaping deep ocean oil exploration and scientific research. As I wrote in Forbes in 2011:

While Wave Gliders haven’t achieved Skynet-like consciousness, they represent a revolution in robotics that promises to advance ocean exploration and exploitation, much as the Hubble Space Telescope opened the cosmos. Packed in their 7-by-2-foot titanium- framed fiberglass bodies are terabytes of cellphone flash storage, a dual-core ARM processor running open Linux software, a battery pack, sensor arrays, a GPS unit, and wireless and satellite communications systems. It’s all powered by two off-the-shelf solar panels that cover the top of the Glider.

But it is what’s unseen 23 feet below the ocean’s surface that makes the Wave Glider a perpetual motion green machine and that its investors are gambling will mint money from oil companies, scientists and the military. Tethered to the floating vehicle are six three and-a-half-foot “fins” attached to a rudder. As the fins tap the energy generated by the up-and-down motion of ocean waves, they move to propel the robot at speeds of up to 2 knots. No fuel—fossil or otherwise—required.

Last November, a Wave Glider called Papa Mau set a record when it completed a year-long, 10,000-mile journey from San Francisco to Australia, surviving sharks, tropical storms, and 25-foot-high waves.

That resiliency has won Liquid Robotics a roster of oil industry customers. It can cost an ExxonMobil or Chevron as much as $150,000 a day to outfit a deep-ocean vessel to monitor deep ocean wells and collect data on ocean condition in advance of drilling. A Wave Glider, on the other hand, costs $100,000 and can operate up to a year at sea, beaming data to the cloud. But most customers prefer to let Liquid Robotics operate and maintain the Wave Gliders and purchase yearly all-you-can-eat data plans for between $500,000 and $1 million.

No surprise, then, that one of the company’s first customers was BP and that oil industry services giant Schlumberger was an early investor. Last year, Schlumberger and Liquid Robotics formed a joint venture called Liquid Robotics Oil & Gas in Houston to provide Wave Gliders to Big Oil.

Liquid Robotics’ latest investor is Riverwood Capital, a private equity firm that led the $45 million round.

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