Oceans play an integral role in our lives, influencing weather and climate patterns and providing a home for many species that are essential to our survival. OCIUS' unmanned surface vessels make it easier for us learn about ocean life.
Company: OCIUS Technology Ltd
Profile: Innovation and improvement through research has been at the heart of OCIUS' existence since Day 1. Initially a start-up which built ferries that ran on renewable energy, OCIUS has since leveraged its technology to build unmanned surface vessels in response to market demand. OCIUS now builds robots, powered by solar, wind and wave energy that can go out in the ocean for an indefinite period.
Why R&D is needed
OCIUS' determination and understanding of market needs has enabled it to grow into a successful and advanced business. In its initial years, when the company started as Solar Sailor, oil prices were high and people were more environmentally conscious. The ferries the company designed - which were powered by sun and wind energy - were well received and operated commercially in Sydney Harbour as well as Hong Kong and Shanghai.
An alternative solution was necessary, however, when the global financial crisis hit. Oil prices went down to about 30 dollars a barrel and second-hand ferries became affordable. Fortunately, this challenging time coincided with an enquiry from the USA to build unmanned vessels 'that could go to sea indefinitely'.
In 2010, with a strong R&D focus, the company was able to adapt its technologies and patents to build robots powered by solar, wind and wave energy for ocean usage. Solar Sailor changed its name to OCIUS in 2014 and is now located inside the University of New South Wales (UNSW), partnering with university scientists.
Research and development is focused on four main areas: hardware, software, autonomous 'fleet' capabilities, and testing prototypes in the real world.
The hardware, or the physical robot, is protected by 6 different patents. Initially the company's R&D centred around the fundamental design of the robot. This involved building a number of scale models and testing them in a wave tank at the University of Wollongong. Based on these tests a suitable design was selected for the robot and then developed into a full size working prototype. In the last two years, a second successful prototype was built.
Now that the physical aspect of the robot has been developed to a point where it is a minimal viable product (MVP), the focus of research has shifted to the software. The robots are essentially data collecting sensors that go out into the ocean and transmit data, so this second area of research focus aims at ensuring they are able to handle, process, and send the data as an 'answer' - rather than a continuous stream of data or simply saving it.
In addition to the ability to control and process data and avoid collisions, individual robots can perform autonomous missions; that is, they are built with constituents for artificial intelligence and machine learning. These have been evolved to a point where they can look after themselves, eliminating the need to be remote controlled. Ultimately, OCIUS, with UNSW, want to develop software so multiple heterogeneous ocean robots can behave as a 'team' like the university's 'robots that play soccer', i.e. in a distributed mesh network so they can decide a mission, 'talk' to each other and if they lose external communication or GPS, they continue the mission and report back later.
While several competitors around the world have robots, which are remote controlled (or piloted with basic levels of autonomy), OCIUS' features are unique. But the company isn't content to simply sit ahead of the pack and it is aiming for levels of autonomy never previously achieved. This requires heavy R&D.
In the coming year, the robots will be sent out in the ocean to expose them to Australian currents. The event, 'Autonomous Warrior 2018', will consist of war games between unmanned robots from the USA, England, Australia, Canada and New Zealand off Jervis Bay in NSW. With audiences coming from all over the world, this is an opportunity for OCIUS to showcase their robots.
“What we want to show is that unmanned surface vehicles, whether it's ours or theirs, can do missions that a manned ship does not want to do or it is expensive, dull or dangerous for a manned ship to do. The second thing we want to prove is that our platform is the best. ”ROBERT DANE, CEO
How the Research and Development Tax Incentive helps
OCIUS have had a tax rebate every year for the past eighteen years. With increased R&D in the past couple of years (due to the focus on the hardware design and software aspects of the unmanned vessels), the tax rebate has also increased.
Between 1997 and 2000, when funding was covered by the company's founders who were still committed to other jobs, it was challenging to raise the funds needed. However, since being part of the RDTI program, OCIUS have been able to invest more in R&D, knowing that they will get back a significant percentage of what they have invested. Their link to the program also helps them lock in contracts with potential partners/customers to whom they can demonstrate their capabilities.
“The R&D rebate has accelerated our research and development efforts. We have to develop and design both hardware and software that work together. For the persistent ocean robot 'Bluebottle' design, it has allowed rapid scale model tank testing through to trials of working prototypes in the sea. For our autonomous command and control software, it has allowed us to employ THREE more people in-house plus work closely with excellent researchers at the UNSW Computer Science Department.”ROBERT DANE, CEO
Direct impacts of research activities can be seen amongst customers, a good example being defence companies. Typically, these customers would use manned ships which are expensive, costing up to 80,000 to 100,000 dollars a day, and which also have to take into account the health and safety of the men on board. In addition to offering a cheaper and safer solution, the unmanned ships can take up weights of up to 300 kg, staying out in in the ocean indefinitely, seeing, hearing and smelling things, which can then initiate a response from a manned airplane or ship.
CEO Robert Dane also says that OCIUS' participation in the 'Autonomous Warrior 2018' positions Australia as a strong contender in the provision of advanced technology. This event is predicted to create interest for local businesses and communities in Jervis Bay, and in the end, will also drive demand for high tech jobs in the autonomous robotics sector.
Globally, there is great benefit from having robots out in the ocean. OCIUS' technology will provide a better understanding of the ocean, from many different perspectives, including defence, oil and gas and oceanography, in addition to validating weather models.
Ultimately, this knowledge helps with matters related to our safety, such as environmental monitoring, identifying climate change signs, predicting where hurricanes make landfall, and detecting leaks in oil rigs.
RDTI Impact Facts
- Supports the development of unmanned surface vessels which are autonomous.
- Helps the business hire new staff.
- Facilitates partnerships with prominent bodies such as UNSW's Computer Science Department.
- Enables more focused R&D.
- Allows rapid iteration between design, testing in the real world and redesign.
- Helps the development of a solution which would otherwise be dull and dangerous work for labourers.
- Aids the validation of weather models and climate change signs.
- Assists in oil and gas monitoring, environmental monitoring and detecting leaks in oil rigs.
- Aides the defence of Australia.