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Race to the Bottom (of the Sea)

The Bay Area’s innovation boom isn’t confined to driverless cars and delivery drones—submersibles are in on it too. 

1. Open-sourcing the ocean
Schmidt Ocean Institute, Palo Alto
Billionaire Google chairman Eric Schmidt has fashioned the boat of oceanographers’ dreams. The Falkor—an old fishing vessel with $60 million of renovations (read: sauna, helipad)— takes scientists on research cruises to map the ocean floor, search for new species, and study the unknown. The projects are funded in exchange for the scientists’ releasing their findings to the public (Google it). Schmidt’s institute is also designing a new, top-secret vessel, hoping to make it the world’s most advanced deep-diving robotic vehicle.

2. The little buoy that could
Liquid Robotics, Sunnyvale
Built by a sleek, venture-backed company, the world’s first wave- and solar-powered floating data center has already set the record for the longest distance traveled by an autonomous surface vehicle. Running solely on natural energy, Wave Glider can be at sea for over two years, transmitting real-time data even in hurricanes, as it monitors tsunami warnings, offshore resources, and disasters such as oil spills.

3. The layman’s submarine
OpenROV, Berkeley
Eric Stackpole doesn’t think it should take a research grant to explore the ocean, so the 29-year-old San Jose State grad hashed out a tiny DIY robot kit in a Cupertino garage. Now hobbyists with $849 can explore sea caves and researchers have a cheap option for a remotely operated underwater vehicle. It streams video to a controller, and users can modify it through hardware and software developed by the open-source community.

4. Reconnaissance torpedoes
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing
These autonomous vessels are the first to be deployed in clans to float above ecosystems. Tethys was developed by the coastal nonprofit research center to collect data using sensors, painting a cohesive picture of how dynamic ocean communities function and clarifying mysteries—from missing links in the food chain to why populations migrate or die off.

5. A subaquatic telescope
Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, Moss Landing
Scini was designed by students at this graduate campus to navigate areas of the Arctic previously untouched by humans and technology. The long, slender device slips through a 10-inch-wide ice hole and functions like a long underwater telescope, able to see below glaciers to study what drives food chains that are untainted by human impact.

6. Blue Angels, underwater
Hawkes Ocean Technologies, Richmond Bay
This battery-powered high-tech sport submersible flies like a fighter jet—underwater. Built in a hangar, Black Hawk has maneuverable wings that allow it to glide alongside whales and pull off agile stunts like barrel rolls—and it fits into a one-car garage. The 18-year-old company was the first to apply airplane technology to submersibles and has sold similar joyrides to adventurous high rollers like Tom Perkins and Dietrich Mateschitz.

7. The Magic School Bus of the deep
DOER Marine, Alameda
Whereas most deep-sea research is limited to a camera’s point of view or how deep a diver can swim, the Ocean Explorer HOV 1000, being crafted by ocean research veterans at the Alameda marina, will run for eight hours as far down as the twilight zone. The bubble-like vessel will hover in the water as researchers study bioluminescent creatures, survey sub-sea volcanoes, and search for potential new medicines, while manipulator arms will engage with the environment more carefully than is possible with destructive trawls.

8. Deep-sea chariot
Virgin Oceanic, Point Richmond
Richard Branson is on a mission to be the first person to fly in both the air and the sea. Working off of Hawkes Ocean Technologies’ Deepflight Challenger, this craft aims to fly to full ocean depth and back in five hours. That’s shorter than a flight to New York. The 8,000-pound behemoth of carbon and titanium will be able to withstand 1,500 times as much pressure as an airplane, though no word yet on beverage service.

 

Originally published in the April Issue of San Francisco Magazine.

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