Bluefin Sells Sub to Horizon Marine, Competes with iRobot for Big Navy Contract

Greg told you last month about Bedford, MA-based iRobot’s collaboration with the University of Washington to turn its Seaglider undersea robot into a commercial product. Not to be outdone, Cambridge, MA-based Bluefin Robotics announced this week that it has received its first commercial contract for a similar autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), the Spray Glider.

And it looks like Bluefin, iRobot, and a third local company—Falmouth, MA-based Webb Research, recently bought by Teledyne—will all be going up against each other for a big Navy contract for at least 154 of the glider-class robots. The torpedo-shaped vehicles, which can be outfitted with a variety of sensors, have no external moving parts and move through the ocean simply by altering their buoyancy.

Bluefin’s contract, announced Monday, is with Horizon Marine, an oceanographic services company in Marion, MA, that helps oil and gas companies map ocean currents in the vicinities of offshore oil rigs. Bluefin will supply an unspecified number of Spray Glider submarines to Horizon, which will use them as part of its so-called “Eddy Watch” program, which detects strong currents that can damage undersea drilling equipment. “We chose Bluefin Robotics and the Spray Gliders because they offer long-term unattended deployments at a reasonable cost,” said Horizon president James Feeney in a statement.

Bluefin's Spray GliderBluefin, a 1997 spinoff of the AUV Laboratory at MIT’s Sea Grant College Program, licenses the technology behind the Spray Glider from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, where it was originally developed. Like the UW/iRobot Seaglider and Webb Research’s Slocum Glider, the Spray Glider is designed for autonomous missions lasting up to six months. The winged vehicle can move up and down in the water by moving oil between internal and external bladders. When the oil is inside the robot’s pressurized hull, the vehicle has negative buoyancy, so it sinks; when the oil is moved to the external bladder, it leaves an air-filled space inside, giving the vehicle positive buoyancy and causing it to rise. As it moves up and down in the water column, its wings deflect it forward, so that the vehicle’s overall path resembles the teeth of a saw.

In the course of a single mission, the Spray Glider can dive and ascend 800 times, going as deep as 1,500 meters and covering a total distance of 4,000 kilometers. Every time the vehicle surfaces, it uses GPS to get a fix on its position, and sends the data it’s collected back to controllers via an Iridium satellite phone connection. (The Seaglider and the Slocum Glider function much the same way; all three vehicles were developed in response to an Office of Naval Research challenge to the scientific community about 10 years ago to build an “autonomous ocean sampling network.”)

Bluefin has been manufacturing the Spray Glider for oceanographic research organizations and military agencies since 2004. But the Horizon deal marks the first time that Bluefin has supplied the craft to a commercial client. “The contract is important to us in that it’s really the first time that the oil and gas industry has come to look at this platform,” says Jeff Smith, Bluefin’s director of programs. “Traditionally this has been an academic research vehicle. The Navy has recently looked at using it for data collection to give advantage to the warfighter, and now with this Horizon Marine contract we’re seeing it in real-time applications for commercial oil and gas exploration.”

Smith couldn’t divulge the size of the contract, but he says that each Spray Glider vehicle costs about $100,000 when fully equipped with conductivity, temperature, and depth sensors. (Which isn’t much when you compare it to the $30,000 per day it can cost to send out manned oceanographic survey ships.)

Bluefin's Spray GliderWhile the Horizon contract is important for Bluefin, however, it’s the Navy relationship that could develop into a real gold mine for the company. In partnership with General Dynamics’ Advanced Information Systems division, Bluefin just submitted a final proposal to supply 154 Spray Gliders, along with data communications gear and other mission support subsystems, to the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR). Powered and unpowered AUVs are a key part of SPAWAR’s planned Littoral Battlespace Sensing, Fusion, and Integration (LBSF&I) program, which would provide a better picture of global ocean conditions to naval mission planners.

Smith believes that iRobot and Webb Research have submitted competing proposals to supply gliders for the LBSF&I program. “It’s a very large procurement,” he says. The winning organization could be in an admirable position for the future, since the current LBSF&I contract “is just the first component of a six- or seven-tiered acquisition that the Navy is putting together to get a broader picture of the ocean,” says Smith.

The Navy is expected to announce which organization will receive the initial contract on September 15.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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One response to “Bluefin Sells Sub to Horizon Marine, Competes with iRobot for Big Navy Contract”

  1. those things are so sweet i want one