'Ring-wing' robo-sub smart swarm lands £6m oil deal
MoD uninterested in Brit ring-bot sniffers, though
DSEi An upstart startup founded by BAE Systems engineers, let go following a corporate reorganisation, says that it has won a large oil-industry deal for its underwater ring-wing robot swarm technology.
GO Science, in its own words, was formed in 2002 by engineers who "left BAE Systems at Filton with many years of successful experience in aerospace, maritime and undersea". In particular, GO CEO Harry Gosling was a 28-year company man, having been sponsored through his engineering degree by the former British Aerospace and rising to become director of BAE Systems' underwater business. But a corporate restructuring in 2002 would have required him to move away from Bristol to keep his job, so he struck out on his own.
The company he founded has various kinds of special sauce at its disposal, with the headliner being its eyecatching "ring-wing" fluid-foil design. The GO Science engineers believe that the ring-wing has advantages in air as well as water, but for now they're focused on subsea applications.
This is because they actually have a customer for underwater use. To date, GO Science has survived mainly on government grants and sponsorships, apparently (pdf) meaning that Gosling has had to drive a smaller car than he was used to as a BAE director. But GO Science's Kelvin Hamilton, showing off the firm's ring-wing tech at the DSEi arms fair in London yesterday, told the Reg that the firm now has a "£6m" deal from an unnamed oil company.
It would seem that pleasing as the ring-wing subfoil is - Hamilton says it is 33 per cent more efficient than the best alternative underwater form factor, and it can easily do an impressive 8 knots on battery power - this is not the primary reason for the oil biz's interest. Rather, the deal was sealed by GO Science's other flavour of sauce - its autonomous, acoustic-link swarming technology.
According to Hamilton, the plan is to deploy a mighty swarm of up to 2,500 Ring Hydro Vessel Agent Under-liquid (RHyVAU) subdroids, which will navigate partially by compass/inertial means and partly using sonic signals emitted both from each other and from a surface reference unit using GPS satnav. The cunning swarm tech will let the highly manoeuvrable ring-wing droids swiftly drive themselves into a precisely aligned grid on the seabed, so deploying a net of well-located seabed sensors for a seismic survey. Data gathered, the ring-bot oilsniffers will recover themselves hands-off to the survey ship for swift and easy info collation.
According to GO Science, such surveys - commonly used by the oil and gas industries to get an idea how much remains in a given offshore resource field, for instance - normally take up to 12 weeks and tie up two or three ships using current remotely-operated subs. By contrast, a RHyVAU auto-swarm would get the job done in maybe half the time with just one ship required, cutting the present circa £18m cost of such an operation massively.
With such potential savings on the table, it's easy to see why the oil biz would be willing to take a chance on a new technology - and this on its own could mean a viable future for GO Science and perhaps a BAE-sized car again for its CEO.
Not from BAE? No vast workforce you might lay off? Don't go bothering the MoD
Unsurprisingly given the firm's genesis and the fact it is exhibiting at DSEi, however, it also has its eyes on military customers - both for its various undersea designs and its possible future aircraft versions.
Hamilton thinks the ring-wing subs' excellent speed and efficiency - combined with strong hovering performance - could automate the sniffing out of mines in difficult shallow waters and surf zones. More conventional remote-operated vehicles have already largely done this for offshore minefields, relegating mine-clearance divers to certain special tasks, but clearance close inshore is difficult for regular subdroids. Hamilton also says that ring-wings could be useful in towed-sonar and other naval apps.
Then there's the option of getting up out of the water and flying ring-wings in the air. GO has "uRaptor" designs both for a twin ducted-fan job like the RHyVAU or an unpowered ring-glider. Both would use a somewhat flattened shape compared to the underwater jobs, according to Hamilton, and would offer various advantages over more conventional airframes - such as almost-vertical takeoff combined with good cruise efficiency and quietness. Unlike the subsea versions, which have had a fair bit of wet testing already, the airborne machines have only flown in computers - but Hamilton says it wouldn't cost a fortune to see if they're as good in the air as they are in silicon.
Any chance of manned versions?
"We did think of that," says Hamilton. But it seems that development costs would be prohibitive - it's a lot easier to start with unmanned systems.
As to whether the firm is having any luck with the Ministry of Defence - with at least one minister who is supposedly intensely focused on helping British techbiz as well as on fighting wars - Hamilton says "it seems to be a lot harder to break into this kind of market" [as opposed to commercial sectors].
Even though this would appear to be a not-uncommon case of a British SME with a potentially good military idea not already done in America, as usual there seems to be little interest from the MoD. Mr Gosling and his crew, having lost the advantage of BAE Systems' huge marketing machine and the company's almost inexplicably-powerful Whitehall clout, seem thus far to have been frozen out.
"We're still a very small company, around twenty people," says Hamilton, providing a further clue to the firm's difficulty in getting through doors in Westminster. A standard BAE Systems ploy in getting its products funded by the MoD is a threat to fire a large number of workers if no money can be found, something which GO Science is in no position to do. ®