Alumni Profile

Ocean Motion: The next era of autonomous drones may monitor and be powered by the sea

The next era of autonomous drones may monitor and be powered by the sea

More accurate information gathered by seaworthy drones may help us better understand and respond to a changing climate

When we think of renewable sources of energy, we often think of wind, solar and geothermal. But oceans, which covers most of the Earth’s surface, produces a huge amount of currently untapped power with the movement of its currents and waves.

Ocean Motion Technologies, a San Diego-based startup, is developing new ways to take advantage of energy produced by the sea to power a wide array of devices — such as buoys and underwater drones, known as autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) — that collect and share data about the ocean.

Building “Big Blue Data”

Today, oceans are wired with hardware that gathers information, including water temperature, wind speed and wave height. These devices can also gather data about the chemical properties of seawater, which can fluctuate according to the season, ecology, or level of pollution. This equipment requires maintenance that is costly, and the equipment generally can’t produce power to work for indefinite periods of time.

Jack Pan, Ph.D., founder and chief executive officer of Ocean Motion, refers to this large-scale collection of information from the oceans as “big blue data,” and in the next few years, the sector is poised for massive growth. He paints a vivid picture of the future.

“Imagine eventually there will be tens of thousands of these autonomous platforms and vehicles operating in marine environments that will conduct monitoring for shipping lanes and all sorts of complicated predictions for these large- and small-scale climate events,” Pan said. These devices will need power, not only to move but also to exchange, back up and transmit the data they collect. And they may be able to do so with the help of Ocean Motion’s innovations.

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Jack Pan, Ph.D.

Founder & CEO
Ocean Motion

It’s likely that the visions we’ve had for our future cities — with flying cars and high-tech gadgets — will come true in the ocean first.

Jack Pan, Ph.D.

Founder & CEO

As removed from our daily lives isolated patches of the ocean may be, what happens out there plays an important role in modulating the climate we experience.

While the interactions between land, ocean and atmosphere are extremely complex, in general, warmer ocean temperatures often generate more powerful weather systems. Higher sea water temperatures can also stress underwater ecosystems. Coral, for example, is one aquatic inhabitant that is extremely vulnerable to temperature fluctuations. Extreme temperatures over the past decade have resulted in severe damage to reefs in locations as disparate as the Australian coast and the Persian Gulf. Algal blooms, which can be caused by man-made chemicals, and acidification events, which can be instigated by increased absorption of carbon, also threaten ecosystems.

AUVs powered by Ocean Motion’s technologies have the potential to help researchers predict and respond in advance to these destructive events. “Better data can help us address a wide range of climate and environmental issues, including overfishing, predicting harmful algal blooms, measuring bulk and microplastics, monitoring ocean acidification and conservation enforcement,” Pan said.

Predictions about future ocean states will be produced by advanced machine learning models. These models require huge volumes of data about the ocean. A significant portion of this data will be provided by AUVs. “The new paradigm of machine learning is not to do lots and lots of experiments and come up with some sort of mathematical formula,” Pan said. “Rather, it’s to take an insane amount of data and push it through a machine learning model which can then figure out the relationship” among phenomena in the ocean.

Pan describes an example of how more precise ocean data could have a clear economic impact. Ocean acidification events can destroy oyster and other shellfish farms. Better, higher-resolution data from sensors powered by Ocean Motion’s technology could help an oyster farmer protect
their crop from acidification before it’s wiped out.

The company has received non-dilutive funding via Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the U.S. Department of Energy. This effort required the creation of a robust commercialization plan, which Larta helped Ocean Motion create. Larta is now helping Ocean Motion scale their business.

On the Horizon

Ocean Motion has some promising initiatives in the works, including pilot programs in Alaska and Oregon, and a plan to monitor coral reefs in Hawaii. The goal is to deploy and test the ocean-powered beacons in the field and gather large amounts of data.

When asked about his goals for the industry, Pan said he believes collaboration is critical for its success. Advancements in the sector “require a lot of people across very different disciplines to work together,” Pan said. “This will not be achieved with one company alone, and we hope that we can play a small role by bringing people and technology solutions together.”

Alumni News

June 21, 2022

Ocean Motion Technologies is selected for TEAMER Request for Technical Support (RFTS 6)

Through the support from the TEAMER RFTS 1 and RFTS 2, OMT has set up WEC-SIM models and produced preliminary results on power output.

MAY 25, 2022

Ocean Motion Technologies is awarded Phase I SBIR Grant from the U.S. Department of Energy

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced nearly $2.6 million for 13 hydropower and marine energy projects as part of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program.

March 1, 2022

Ocean Motion Technologies is selected for TEAMER Request for Technical Support (RFTS 5)

The U.S. Testing Expertise and Access to Marine Energy Research (TEAMER) program has selected 9 projects through its fifth Request for Technical Support (RFTS) for testing expertise and access to numerical modeling, lab testing, and tank/flume testing within an expanded facility network.

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