Virtual Immersion Goes Beyond the Surface with Underwater Drones
Christine Spiten is the 27 year old co-founder and chief global strategist of Blueye Robotics, a company making underwater drones that connect with your smartphone, tablet, laptop or a pair of goggles to explore the marine environment 150 meters underwater.
Sea Technology caught up with Spiten just a few hours after she emerged from an underwater adventure in the fjords of Trondheim Norway, where Blueye Robotics is based, to talk about the company’s debut model, the Pioneer.
We also discussed future development plans and Spiten’s ideas about democratizing access to the ocean to make underwater inspection—whether the hull of a ship, an aquaculture farm, for search-and-rescue, or just for fun—an everyday activity without the need for expensive, heavy equipment or professional crews of divers.
Sea Technology: Christine, tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?
Christine Spiten: I am an engineer with an master of science degree in industrial economics and technology management. I also studied regulation techniques in underwater robotics at the University in Rio, Brazil, and I studied international entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley in California.
As a student, I actively searched for practical applications of all the theory I was learning. I decided to start with my greatest passion: the ocean, which has been an important part of my life since I was very little. Driven by curiosity, I wanted to create a solution that made the ocean available to everyone, to increase knowledge, compassion and protection of the ocean on a global level.
My master’s thesis was about the development of small underwater drones that could be available for everyone. That’s the idea with Blueye Robotics: developing underwater drones that connect to your smart device and bring your eyes down to 150 meters below the surface, allowing you to share that experience with others.
ST: I’m curious about the development of the Blueye Pioneer prototype. I read that you created it in just a few weeks?
CS: Ten weeks after we founded the company, we had a prototype. So that prototype I actually brought with me on an international research expedition across the Atlantic sea where I was one of 14 women investigating marine litter and searching for microplastics. So I was able to take the first prototype with me on this expedition, which was an amazing experience, but also an opportunity for Blueye to prove that we have some technology that is revolutionizing, both in the way that we can use it for research and also for private users.
Check out the video below to see the Blueye Pioneer in the water with the Great Barrier Reef Legacy—and sharks!
Along the way, we had different pilot customers giving us feedback, so the user experience has been in focus the whole time. We want our drones to be fun, easy and intuitive to operate and handle, including the size: they are small enough that you can bring one in your hand luggage when you’re traveling.
So that was the first functioning prototype, and I was able to take it aboard the flight to Africa with me. It was extremely exciting. Since then, the drones have become more efficient, and they are now able to go deeper. The camera quality has improved a lot. They have also become smaller size and easier to handle quite practically.
ST: Tell me more about the start-up of Blueye?
CS: Blueye started with four co-founders back in 2015. We’re still based in Trondheim, the marine technology capital in Norway and one of the world’s largest marine technology hubs. It’s great for us being here. In addition, there’s the closeness to the sea and the fjords. Just a couple hours ago we came in from a trip testing the latest prototype of our drone, and we were able to dive down to 225 m depth, and it’s just beautiful coral. It may be hard to believe it is this lively and colorful below the surface of the dark Arctic waters all the way up in Norway, but it’s really stunning.
ST: Is increasing the depth your next step in development?
CS: Yes. In the future, we will have several models of the Pioneer, both smaller, easier, cheaper ones and also more complex ones that have more sensors and are specialized for different uses.
Just a couple of weeks ago I went down to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. There is a group of scientists called the Great Barrier Reef Legacy who are now trying one of our prototypes on their expeditions in search of super corals. So this is just one example of how scientists can use these drones.
We are also receiving a lot of orders for these drones for professional use within the shipping industry for ship inspection, for aquaculture inspection and for search and rescue. We also have a contract with a Norwegian cruise line that will use it onboard as an activity for their guests. They will have small underwater drones with their expedition team going out in boats, bringing guests with them and having the guests operate the underwater drones, for instance, for whale watching on the expedition cruise.
ST: Tell me about your team. What kind of skills were involved in development of the drones?
CS: We are 19 people today, and that’s a team consisting of software developers, mechanical designers, mechanical engineers and we have very efficient electrical engineers. We are also collaborating with a company that has assisted us on external design of the drone, the design of the app, and the whole user experience. So we are continuing to grow our team. We would like a lot more software developers in the future as the user experience and the software part of the drone will continue to be developed. We have people from Germany, from Spain, Netherlands, Romania, China and Norway.
ST: What does it mean to “democratize” access to the ocean?
CS: I think our whole team are generally passionate about the ocean and dedicated to make this product that will actually open up people’s eyes to the ocean. We are increasingly focused on the oceans worldwide, because people don’t realize that this is the last frontier on earth, and we are all dependent on it. So if we could democratize access to the ocean and enable people to be part of this exploration, I think that’s a story that really attracts people.
ST: Tell me about your vision for consumers and citizens to share data from their drone with marine scientists. How do you foresee that playing out?
CS: You have the ability to share the story through an app or online. You can actually stream the experience while you are outside, you can stream live video over the internet, so a group of people who are not present when you are diving can actually log on and see what’s going on. And, by implementing more sensors on the drone in the future, we are able to actually say something about the condition of the sea. So this is a way that we can contribute to research and marine biology all over the world, by providing data. That’s actually the biggest bottleneck for researchers today is the lack of access to data to be able to say something about the condition of the ocean.
So I think this will be a huge thing in the future. At the moment our software development is focused on how to make this experience exciting for people and to gamify, for instance, the search for trash or microplastics or different marine species when you’re diving. We also have a digital diving mask, so you can put your iPhone into the lens of this mask and truly immerse yourself in this experience.
But there are also practical uses. For instance, when you’re inspecting the hull of your ship, to be able to put this mask on and really close out all disturbances, the sunlight, and really be able to dive down and see underwater. It’s easy to control and you’re actually able to stand still with the help of functions like auto-heading and auto-depth. You can let go of the control buttons with your hands. The ability to do that is really simplifying operation for professionals and also enabling private people to do something they’ve never had the opportunity to do before.
ST: What kind of feedback are you getting?
CS: We have loaned prototypes to partners who say they usually either use divers to go underwater with a camera to inspect the ship or more expensive ROVs that have been used by the industry for decades. When they try out the Blueye Pioneer, it saves time and cost to just throw a drone overboard into the sea and use it to do the same work on really short notice, themselves.
We have a collaboration with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) to test our prototype, and they say this is something that will save them a lot of time, a lot of cost, and make it easier for them to conduct research. On the California coast there are a lot of marine protected areas, and MBARI is responsible for research in this area over time to be able to say year-to-year how marine life is affected by climate change and by human activity. To do the work, they are using divers and big, industrial ROVs.
A normal scuba diver is able to dive down to 80 meters, so just to be able to have an underwater drone like ours that can go down to 150 meters without having to bring along an extra boat with a big ROV and some professionals using it, is helping the scientists perform tests, gather samples and inspect more often, which is exactly what they need.
ST: Tell me about the technology, what’s inside the device. How does it see, how does it swim, what are the components involved?
CS: It has four thrusters, 350 W each, so if you’re operating it along the hull of a ship or a wall in the water or a coral reef, you can move sideways, adjust your position, go up or down. The thrusters keep you stable and give you really good video. It has a 1080 full HD camera that is really light-sensitive, so it gives you the true colors. The battery operates for about two hours, and you can change these batteries if you want to continue and go diving a whole day.
And there’s the cable from the drone up to the surface unit that you can connect onshore or you can have it floating at a buoy. From the surface unit, it uses a wifi signal that goes to your phone, tablet, desktop screen or surface device, making it able to receive live video and transmit the control signal from a game controller. Or, you can use touch-control on your screen or mobile device.
Interview by Amelia Jaycen
- The Great Barrier Reef Legacy is using the Blueye Pioneer drone to learn about coral reef bleaching.
- The Blueye Pioneer drone will be used by The New York Harbor School for their “Billion Oyster Project” in which a billion oysters are placed in the Hudson River to clean the water and restore these native shellfish to the waters. Blueye Robotics drones will be used to monitor the oysters and check the status of the project.
- The Marine Life Studies organization in Monterey, California is working with Blueye Robotics to help them study marine protected areas around Monterey Bay and along the West Coast of the U.S. from Seattle to San Diego.
About Christine Spiten:
Christine Spiten holds an M.Sc in industrial economics and technology management from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, which included robotics courses at UFRJ in Rio, Brazil. Spiten was recognized as one of Norway’s 50 most important female tech founders in 2017 and was a nominated finalist for the Nor-Shipping Young Entrepreneur Award 2017. Watch Spiten’s TED Talk: “Technology’s Impact on Empathy” or visit www.blueyerobotics.com to learn more. Interview has been edited for style and clarity.