Those ocean-going robots we told you about just got smarter

Charting its own course.
Charting its own course.
Image: Liquid Robotics
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What could be cooler than solar-and-wave-powered robots that roam the oceans collecting data for climate scientists and oil companies while performing top-secret missions for the military? Here’s what: Ones that can think for themselves.

The robots’ maker, Liquid Robotics, today unveiled its bigger and better next-generation Wave Glider SV3, which packs more computational firepower, a solar-powered thruster and new operating system that endows the bots what the company calls “intelligent autonomy.”

If the surfboard-sized Wave Glider SV3 finds itself on a collision course with an oil tanker, for instance, it can take evasive action on its own rather than email a Liquid Robotics operator in Silicon Valley and wait for a human to move it out of harm’s way.

The Wave Glider isn’t Cylon-smart yet but its new operating system, called Regulus, allows the robot to analyze the information it gathers at sea through its sensor arrays and beam back answers to clients’ questions. Current Wave Gliders just transmit terabytes of raw data to the cloud via an expensive satellite relay.

The SV3 boasts a third, more efficient solar panel that delivers 50% more power to operate sensor arrays as well as beefed up cellphone computer chips and a rack of lithium-ion batteries.

Like the original Wave Glider, now dubbed the SV2, the new robot is not a result of any particular breakthrough in artificial intelligence but is a product of the integration of increasingly inexpensive off-the-shelf computer chips, cloud computing, sensor arrays and solar panels.

There are other seafaring robots—Teledyne Webb Research and Roomba-maker iRobot offer competitors—but none has so far combined Liquid Robotics’ autonomy and intelligence. The company recently scored $45 million from investors, for a total of $85 million raised to date. And in the space of a few years it has attracted a growing roster of oil industry, scientific and military customers. Given the Wave Gliders’ increasingly prominent role in oil exploration and military missions, the company bears watching.

Roger Hine, Liquid Robotics co-founder and the inventor of the Wave Glider, says the SV3’s boost in carbon-free power allows the robot to take on new tasks. A SV3 might be deputized as a park ranger for a marine protected zone, counting fish, searching for poachers and shooting video and photos that it would analyze and edit before transmitting to a data center.

And this generation of Wave Glider will be able to go where no Wave Glider has gone before thanks to the new solar-powered thruster. The robot usually travels by using a unique array of fins that tap the up-and-down motion of the waves to propel itself forward at about 1.7 miles per hour (2.8 kilometers). Problem is, when seas the seas are calm a Wave Glider can remain dead in the water.

But that tends to happen near the equator where there’s plenty of sunshine to tap. So a Wave Glider’s solar panels would charge up its batteries to power the thruster that increases the robot’s speed by half a knot.

“When we’re in the Gulf of Mexico in June the batteries would be charged by 9:30 in the morning so you might turn on the thruster and leave it on for the whole month,” says Hine.

One of the Wave Glider’s selling points is that it eliminates the need to send dispatch expensive deep ocean ships to conduct research. But the robot still has had to hitch a ride on a boat to get to its initial destination. Now it can get there under its own power by using its thruster.

That means the stealthy robot’s can undertake what Hine vaguely referred to as new “security missions.” (The US Navy has deployed Wave Gliders around the world, but that’s all hush-hush.)

The new Wave Glider, which will start shipping to customers in the third quarter, also comes with a new price tag—$300,000 versus $175,000 for the original model. Or customers can just buy the data the robots harvest, but that will cost 25% more as well.