Autonomous Boats, the Future of Ocean Exploration

Unpersonned surface vehicle

In March, entrepreneurs Julie and Colin Angus—co-founders of Open Ocean Robotics—visited BIOS to introduce their unpersonned surface vehicles, also known as USVs. The Force12 Explorer, pictured here, is a solar-powered autonomous boat designed to be outfitted with a suite of sensors that collect data from the ocean and atmosphere and relay it in real-time to scientists, managers, and other user groups.

Explorer, scientist, author, engineer, adventurer, entrepreneur. These are just a few of the titles shared between Julie and Colin Angus, the husband and wife team behind Open Ocean Robotics. Founded in 2017, the company develops autonomous energy-harvesting (wind and solar powered) boats to collect information from the oceans and provide instant access to those data.

In March, the couple visited BIOS to tell faculty, staff, and students the story behind their latest venture, as well as the specific capabilities and uses of unpersonned surface vehicles, also known as USVs. After their presentation, they shared how their experiences as global adventurers have influenced their business goals and strategies.

You met in 2003, but came into the adventuring and exploring lifestyle from different places. Can you share a bit about your backgrounds?
Julie: I graduated from McMaster University (Ontario, Canada) in 1997 with a bachelor of science in biology and psychology. My master’s degree is in molecular biology from the University of Victoria (British Columbia, Canada). After graduating I worked in venture capital, technology transfer, and business development, and spent a decade developing therapeutics for genetic ailments and cardiovascular disease. In 2005 and 2006, Colin and I rowed a boat across the Atlantic Ocean. This was my first big adventure. I wanted to challenge myself and I was curious what it would be like on the open ocean. After that, I had the opportunity to write a book titled Rowboat in a Hurricane: My Amazing Journey Across a Changing Atlantic Ocean. From there it steamrolled into a career doing adventures.

Colin: When I was 19 years old I began a five-year sailing trip in the Pacific Ocean, exploring places like French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, and Papua New Guinea. Since then I’ve completed a number of expeditions, including the first descent of the Yenisei River (Mongolia, Russia) and a complete descent (from source to sea) of the Amazon River. These trips allowed me to make a career out of exploring remote parts of the world and sharing my experiences through books, films, and presentations.

[The couple also founded Angus Adventures, a business that grew organically from giving presentations about their expeditions. Through Angus Adventures, they deliver keynote presentations for private and professional organizations, government departments, and educational institutions about teambuilding, developing strategies to reach goals, fostering leadership, resolving conflict, and developing the mental toughness required to deal with change and unexpected setbacks.]

Where did the idea for Open Ocean Robotics come from?
Julie: We both feel passionate about the ocean and became interested in autonomous boats two years ago. We started thinking about how small boats work in the ocean, and how we could use our knowledge to improve existing technologies. There are currently many ways of collecting data on the ocean, but many of them are prohibitively expensive, which is why we’re focusing on small, efficient, durable boats that can gather data without incurring huge costs.

Colin: We both have a background in designing and constructing boats. Our company Angus Rowboats develops performance rowboat plans and kits with vessels specifically made for expeditions, racing, sailing, camping, and teaching boating basics to children. After learning that there hasn’t been an autonomous boat that has crossed the Atlantic, we looked into what else was out there and began creating our own vehicles. Right now there is a lot of interest in autonomy, but the big issue is reliability, or making sure that nothing breaks down or requires a person to intervene. Our time on the water has given us insight into what happens with small boats and big seas, and what challenges need to be addressed.

Rowing boat

Since meeting in 2003, Colin and Julie have embarked on a number of expeditions together, including rowing a boat across the Atlantic Ocean in 2005 and 2006. Their other business venture, Angus Adventures, grew from their shared experiences and allows the couple to deliver keynote presentations about a variety of topics, including teambuilding, conflict resolution, and leadership development.

Tell us about the boats you’re developing at the moment.
Julie: The Solar Xplorer is our solar-powered autonomous boat. Until now, no one has managed to use solar to adequately power an autonomous boat. The challenge is creating a seaworthy vessel that has enough deck space for a sufficiently-sized solar array. We’ve overcome this challenge by creating a self-righting multi-hull boat. The 24-foot (7.3 meter) prototype carries 1,200 watts with 12 solar panels, which can power sensors that measure wind speed and direction, wave height and period, and the temperature, dissolved oxygen, and conductivity (or salinity) of the water.

Colin: We’re also working on the Force12 Xplorer, which is an autonomous sailboat that uses two rigid wings as sails. Unlike the Solar Xplorer, this boat has a single hull, but it is also self-righting so that it can stand up to severe weather. It’s propelled entirely by wind and the solar panels on the deck provide power for atmospheric and ocean sensors, communication devices, and the rudder. This boat can navigate by itself, or be controlled using satellites, which makes it useful in congested waters with lots of ship traffic.

How are these vehicles being tested?
Julie: Last year I pitched our company in the “Women in Cleantech & Sustainability” competition and we were one of six successful candidates to receive $800,000 in incubator support. The program runs for two and a half years and this funding gives us the opportunity to continue our research and design work, in addition to providing access to government labs, which have tanks for testing boats and solar research facilities. Currently, we have partnerships with Natural Resources Canada, MaRS Discovery District (which supports startup companies in Canada), the University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria, and Camosun College in British Columbia to advance our technology and grow the company. We are also collaborating with academic and industry partners to conduct pilot demonstrations to show how our boats can collect ocean data for oceanographic research and protect our borders.

Colin: We’re testing the boat in the waters off British Columbia to assess how they perform in big sea conditions and on extended missions. We are also working with a University of Victoria club, started by one of our co-op students, to send one of our solar powered boat designs across the Atlantic Ocean this summer from Newfoundland on a 3,106-mile (5,000-kilometer) trip to Ireland. If successful, it will be the first autonomous crossing of the Atlantic. Right now the big focus is on making sure the boats are doing what they’re supposed to do. We did a bathymetry survey as a test run and within the next few weeks we’ll be developing maps for demonstration purposes. After that, the next steps are working with collision avoidance systems and testing hull forms and data telemetry systems.

How do you see Open Ocean vessels being used in the future?
Julie: Our oceans are full of information. This information can help protect at-risk marine mammals, allow ships to travel more fuel-efficient routes, crack down on illegal fishing, and enable us to better understand the impacts of climate change. There is a huge range of potential applications for open ocean research, particularly if we can start taking advantage of the low orbiting satellite network for data retrieval.

Colin: I also see them being used in the development of offshore wind farms, helping to provide data the companies need before deciding where to build the wind farm. There are also applications for seabed mapping and fisheries management, such as collecting data on fish populations.

Last question: Do you feel that the skills necessary to be a great explorer have any overlap with the skills required to be a successful entrepreneur?
Julie: Absolutely. Taking on an expedition is a huge project that requires a lot of research and planning, similar to what you go through when you’re starting a business. On an expedition you break the journey down into smaller milestones and just take one step after the other. There are huge parallels to the things you take on in life.