San Diego’s SeaBotix Making Robots For Deep Blue See

12/2/08Follow @bvbigelow

When hurricanes Gustav and Ike blew through the Gulf of Mexico in late August and September, most offshore oil and gas production platforms were evacuated and shut down. That’s bad news for the estimated 3,800 platforms in the region, which account for roughly 25 percent of U.S. domestic oil output and 15 percent of natural gas.

But it represents a lucrative new opportunity for San Diego’s SeaBotix, which specializes in a relatively new class of aquatic robots known as ROVs, or remotely operated vehicles, which are used mostly for conducting underwater inspections.

Oil and gas operators must determine whether their offshore rigs sustained storm damage before they can resume production, and time is money. Some of the largest platforms in the Gulf of Mexico operate in 7,000 feet of water, producing thousands of barrels of crude a day. The “heavy work” ROVs developed to work in such deep-water oil fields today are slow and cumbersome. They are typically as big as a Jeep and can weigh more than 11 tons, which requires a big support ship equipped with a heavy-lift crane.

SeaBotix, however, has thrived by developing “miniature” ROVs that are intended primarily for use as underwater “flying eyeballs.” Founder Don Rodocker calls them “ROVs for the masses.”

SeaBotix’ biggest ROV, which the company is developing for an unnamed customer, weighs less than 200 pounds and is designed to operate in waters as deep as 4,000 meters, or nearly 2.5 miles. That means it could eyeball the Titanic. “Our intent is to have a prototype operating in the next couple of months,” Rodocker says. “The closest one to it weighs 260 kilos (about 573 pounds) and only goes to 2,000 meters. It is certainly the smallest 4,000-meter system out there.”

The development effort represents the biggest and most ambitious project so far for the privately held company, which Rodocker founded eight years ago. He says SeaBotix, which was funded by friends and family, was profitable almost immediately and should generate a little more than $8 million in revenue this year—almost 50 percent more than its sales in 2007.

The company’s standard ROV, dubbed the LBV (for little benthic vehicle), weighs about 25 pounds, and at 20-inches long by 10-inches wide and 10-inches tall, is about the size of a carry-on suitcase. Rodocker says the innovation that made SeaBotix’s miniaturized ROV possible was the development of a smaller and more lightweight high-resolution camera that could be incorporated into a deep-diving chassis.SeaBotix ROV and Scuba Diver

Advances in electronics, battery efficiency, and the tethers that connect an ROV to its operator on the surface also have made it easier to operate the underwater robots—and to reconfigure them for different uses. SeaBotix can install different sensors and even a small sonar on its LBV to enhance its imaging capabilities. Some ROVs also can be equipped with a “grabber” device that enables the robot to take samples and perform other tasks.

The company sells its ROVs to underwater service firms and salvage operators that are hired to recover sunken equipment, boats, aircraft, and vehicles, and to conduct inspections of underwater pipelines, dams, and other structures. The company makes a dozen models, with prices ranging from $25,000 to roughly $2 million.

Rodocker says his company’s mini-ROVs can be safer and less expensive to operate than a team of scuba divers in many situations, especially at depths below 130 feet, where diving becomes increasingly hazardous. Some dive teams are even using a mini-ROV to inspect their underwater work site for hazards before beginning a job, which is what Rodocker had in mind when he launched the venture.

“Our initial motivation,” Rodocker says, “was to develop a rapid underwater inspection device.” He says SeaBotix has made 585 of them so far.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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