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Greener and cheaper: bareboat boats map the ocean thanks to an Irish company

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(CNN) – Ocean-related industries are growing rapidly, increasing the demand for data on sea conditions. But the huge research vessels that often chart the seas often come at great economic and environmental cost.

The Irish company XOCEAN offers an alternative. Its unmanned surface ships (USVs) – the size of an average car and half its weight – are equipped with sensors that collect data from the ocean and send it by satellite to experts on land.

The company claims it improves safety while reducing costs and emissions from exploring the oceans. According to XOCEAN, its USVs emit 1,000 times less carbon than traditional research vessels.

“If no one has to go to the high seas, that removes people from a potentially dangerous environment,” says James Ives, founder and CEO of XOCEAN. In addition, “(we have) a miniscule environmental footprint … and we believe that we can deliver the data at a lower cost,” he adds.

Activity in the ocean of bareboat boats

XOCEAN says its growing USV fleet is deployed around the world, completing 30,000 hours at sea and more than 100 projects since the company was founded in 2017. It has been used by the oil and gas industry to carry out pipeline studies; by fishing to collect acoustic data on fish stocks; and for research and environmental monitoring.

The boats are powered by a battery charged by solar panels on deck and a small diesel generator. Equipped with sensors such as multi-beam echo sounders – which send sound impulses to the water that bounce off the seabed – they are capable of measuring depth, air and water temperature, wind speed, wave height and flow rates. the tides.

The ocean-related economy is expected to be worth more than $ 3 trillion by 2030, according to a 2016 report OECD, with strong growth expected in offshore wind, fish processing, and shipbuilding and repair.

“Data is the foundation of any activity in the ocean,” says Ives, adding that XOCEAN has seen a huge boom in demand.

Interest grows

Wind farms are increasingly becoming an important source of business for XOCEAN.

At the beginning of 2020, the company had about 20 full-time employees; it now has 112. It has raised about 8 million euros (US $ 9.4 million) in funding, with offices in Ireland, the United Kingdom and Canada. Next, the company wants to expand to Asia-Pacific, and by the end of the year it plans to increase its fleet from 15 to 40 ships.

The new interest comes mostly from the offshore wind sector, says Ives, both from clean energy heavyweights and Ørsted, who hired XOCEAN to conduct a site survey for the largest offshore wind farm in the world, such as oil and gas companies that are switching to renewable energy. BP recently announced using XOCEAN’s USVs to survey an area of ​​the Irish Sea for two 60-year offshore wind leases.

“We are seeing firsthand a tremendous shift in energy markets towards a more renewable future,” says Ives.

Greener, cheaper, safer?

XOCEAN is not the only company to jump on this trend. Is L3Harris, whose unmanned boats have been used by the United States Navy; Saildrone, which has collected data from the Arctic to the equator as part of environmental research; and Ocean infinity, which is leading the development of larger unmanned ships.

However, proving safety to marine regulators remains a challenge. In the case of the United Kingdom, “all the regulations were written with the intention that there would be someone on board,” says Katrina Kemp, technical specialist in autonomy with the Maritime and Coast Guard Agency of the British government, which grants permits for vehicles without crew operate in national waters.

USV operators have to demonstrate that their vessels have an equivalent level of safety, Kemp says, including how the vessel would react to a potential collision, or what happens if there is a technical failure or lag between the remote operator and the vessel itself.

The ship sends real-time images and situational data to XOCEAN’s control room.

“We have to be very sure that the plans and processes they have in place and the equipment they use guarantee that, if things go wrong, the ship is in a safe state and it will not endanger others,” he says the specialist to CNN Business.

Supervision 24 hours a day

XOCEAN ships use light sensing and measurement (lidar) technology to detect nearby objects, and there is a USV pilot and inspector monitoring each active ship 24 hours a day. They can monitor navigation if the boat drifts off course and make sure it follows “the rules of the road at sea,” says Ives.

Without a human on board, each vessel can spend up to a month at sea, which means more time for data collection. It can also face weather conditions that a crewed boat could avoid. “We’ve had a boat in really horrible condition, and we’re sitting here in the comfort of our homes,” says Ives.

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