Greentown Labs All Stars: Autonomous Marine Systems

Autonomous Marine SystemsPhoto courtesy of Autonomous Marine Systems.

When you consider how much of the planet is covered in water, we don’t know all that much about our oceans. Less than five percent of the ocean has been explored, according to Autonomous Marine Systems (AMS) CEO Ravi Paintal.

The ways that researchers currently collect ocean data are costly and inefficient, Paintal argues. Most data is gathered by human-staffed boats, which is expensive and requires returns to land. Buoys can gather information, but only offer a lone data point. Autonomous underwater machines are typically battery powered, and so they can’t stay below the surface for too long. Planes, which can be used to spot mammals, are expensive.

“Clearly, there’s a gap between the importance of the resource and our knowledge on it,” Paintal says. “When you look at how difficult and expensive it is to actually learn about the ocean, and you couple that with the need to know more about it, that’s where the commercial opportunity for our technology became apparent.”

Enter the Datamaran, a robotic boat that’s fueled by wind and sun. Described by AMS as “the world’s first self-righting catamaran,” the Datamaran sails autonomously and can be a more economical and eco-friendly approach to ocean data gathering.

Since it’s wind- and solar-powered, the Datamaran has the capacity, in theory, to stay in open water for an unlimited amount of time.

“You could send a fleet of our vessels out—which, by the way, costs somewhere between one-fiftieth and one-hundredth what you’d pay to have a ship out there—collecting data,” says Paintal. “The data could be [on whales], measuring wind profiles, measuring water currents.”

AMS currently has two prototypes, and expects to help with research across many fields including climate change, agriculture, and defense.

“We can revolutionize how we collect information from the oceans,” Paintal says.

Somerville is home to Greentown Labs, a focal point of the environmental movement. The largest cleantech incubator in the country, Greentown Labs offers its members an 1,800-square-foot wet lab, a machine shop, an electronics lab, and more to help get their ideas off the ground. The more than 90 companies at Greentown Labs are pushing the boundaries in fields such as agriculture, robotics, and transportation.

This story originally appeared in the Environmental Issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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