Wave-Propelled Robots Patrol the Seas for the Oil Industry

Unmanned, open-ocean Wave Gliders use no fuel, produce no emissions, and travel up to 2,000 miles using only wave power. Silicon Valley startup Liquid Robotics makes and operates a fleet of these wave-riding robots for predicting tsunamis, tracking fish, and discovering offshore oil leaks; they even patrol waters for national security threats. And environmental disaster has always proven the craft's sturdy, dependable abilities.

A new joint venture with Schlumberger

When Tropical Storm Isaac was blowing through the Caribbean, building into a powerful hurricane, this floating sensor platform was sent out to safely investigate. As the storm passed, kicking up dangerous 20 foot waves, the Wave Glider collected evidence of a dramatic drop in water temperature, which suggested that Isaac was vacuuming the heat from the Gulf and building in intensity.

Two years ago, after BP finally capped the well of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Liquid Robotics launched a Wave Glider on a two-month mission to count dolphins, whales and detect petroleum in the surrounding ocean. Back at

Liquid Robotics' California headquarters, while large flat screens tracked the glider as it was remotely piloted from over the Internet, orbiting Irridium satellites beamed down near real-time data that was quickly sent on to BP for analysis.

Wave Gliders represent a revolution in robotics that promises to advance ocean exploration, and in June the firm signed a joint venture with early investor Schlumberger. The new company is based in Houston and called Liquid Robotics Oil & Gas. Quoted in a press release, Ashok Belani, Schlumberger's CTO, said: "We're extremely excited about the capabilities the Wave Glider will bring to offshore exploration and production - particularly in the areas of seismic, subsea and environmental monitoring."

Adapting to the data business

Liquid Robotics' many clients, including the global offshore oil industry, have traditionally used ships, buoys or satellite imagery to collect information. But ships are expensive, and cost $10,000 to $100,000 a day to operate. Deep water buoys are cheaper but still run $200,000 to $1 million a year. Now clients can buy a Wave Glider for $200,000 or just lease glider time (and receive data) for $1,000 to $3,000 a day. Watch a CNN video that shows the Wave Glider in action:

Originally, the company intended to sell Wave Gliders, but it turns out, most of their customers don't want the headache of keeping tabs on far-flung robots - they just want to use the data. So now the company is gradually adapting to being in the data business, while operating a steadily growing robot fleet.

Along with real-time data, inexpensive propulsion has always been the core of Wave Glider functionality, says Roboticist Roger Hine, co-inventor and now the company's CTO. "If you want to keep robots cost-effective and build lots of them, they're going to have a limited power source," he points out. His ground-breaking solution was using wave energy, not for generating electricity as other green tech companies had tried to do, but for propulsion.

The Wave Glider concept is simple: the upper surfboard is connected by a tether 20 feet long to an underwater

"glider," which is fitted out with hinged, moveable flaps. When the surfboard drops into a wave trough, the weighted glider pulls the assembly downward by changing the flap position. This allows the the Glider to achieve speeds of a quarter-knot in waves as small as 1 inch.

According to Climate Central, The $100,000 surfboard is covered with solar panels that power on-board scientific instruments along with a GPS and the transmitter that uses Iridium satellites to send data to, and receive commands from, company headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif. The data changes depending on which customer has signed up as a client. Oil companies, for example, have already used Wave Gliders to search for leaks around drilling rigs and undersea pipelines.

Roger Hine notes the company is focusing on "knots, watts, and carrying capacity." Clients can currently choose from 65 sensors, but the lab is testing 152 more. Eventually oil companies and other clients will benefit from thousands of "smart" Wave Gliders blanketing the sea - a floating smart grid tying together a vast ocean of data.

Will this help control some of the costs of offshore drilling?

Images: various - Liquid Robotics