You’d have to be a real drag to not think underwater robots are cool. OK, but what do they have to do with cleantech? We found a connection. Hydroid, for example, makes Remote Environmental Monitoring Units (REMUS), which can sniff out the source of pollution deep underwater — the 6000 series can dive over 19,000 feet. The military has also used the autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to find mines in the Persian Gulf and oceanographers have used them to study the ocean floor.
Hydroid’s president and CEO, Christopher von Alt, is the guy who built the first underwater tethered robot vehicle, which was used to explore the Titanic. Since the company’s founding in 2001, he’s built Hydroid into a company with over $13 million in 2006 revenue and an eye on gaining some private sector clients. Of course we wanted to chat with him. Here’s an edited excerpt:
Q: How would you describe your core technology? What differentiates you from other underwater robot companies?
A: The core technology was developed out of a small vehicle, which initially very few people saw any merit in. It’s proven highly transportable and very effective. It’s well-suited to complement what a man can do during the day. As a result, there are more than 150 systems out there, which is three to five times more than what any other system has in the water.
The primary utilizations of the system are to save human lives and to protect the environment, by having them perform tasks that would otherwise endanger lives. The main current application is in very shallow-water mine countermeasures. When we started, the solution to finding these mines was to take 30 guys out there and look for them. Our robot can find them autonomously, so Navy Seals don’t have to.
Q: How can autonomous underwater vehicles be used to help the environment? Why should energy tech companies be interested in your company?
A: Well, the name of the product, REMUS, stands for Remote Environmental Monitoring Units. It’s meant to go out and make spatial measurements in the ocean over time.
People like Jay Farrell at Stanford pioneered some neat examples of applications. Imagine there is some toxic waste being emanated from somewhere in a bay. You put a sensor on the REMUS tuned to that toxin and use the robot’s autonomy algorithm to drive right to the source of the pollution. It’s much easier than having to use the traditional mowing-the-lawn technique for finding those sources.
Imagine if you had a couple of these robots in the New York Harbor, they can be like environmental police, but you don’t have to pay them as much.
Q: You’ve primarily worked with scientific and government institutions. Do you foresee any differences in working with entrepreneurial cleantech companies?
A: Two things have held us back in the energy sector. One, there’s a pretty huge capital investment that must be made to bring it online. A REMUS 100 vehicle is $300,000 to $350,000. The REMUS 6000 can run up to a million dollars. And two, it’s fully autonomous, so you have to trust it’s going to work.
It takes the mix of somebody having adequate capital backing with the risk tolerance to do it. So defense has been a good industry. That being said, this is also cutting-edge equipment, so if somebody is entrepreneurial, they are going to be looking for stuff like this.
Q: Are you looking for venture capital to support your plans?
A: No, we’re fine. We have plenty of opportunities.
Q: In your life of underwater exploration, what’s the strangest thing you’ve seen down there?
A: The underwater world is a remarkable place where plants and animals have learned to adapt to the harshest environments on Earth. Perhaps that is the strangest thing about the underwater world; when you understand the environment, you understand why many animals appear strange.