Meet the Wave Glider, the Pentagon’s secret sea drone

·National Correspondent, Technology

(Photo: Liquid Robotics)

In 2003, Joe Rizzi had a rich man’s dilemma. He’d often swim in the ocean outside his home on the coast of Hawaii’s Big Island and hear humpback whales singing in the ocean. He loved the sound, and wanted to hear it while he was at home looking out at the ocean. So, with the help of a neighbor, he crafted a flotation device from a kayak, a pickle jar, a long cable, and a hydrophone to live-stream the haunting songs into his living room speakers.

That device was an early prototype of the Wave Glider, a programmable surfboard that was later perfected in a bathtub by Liquid Robotics co-founder and CTO Roger Hine. Today’s version is outfitted with customizable sensors and floats along the water’s surface collecting information, guided by a patented rudder/thruster hybrid that harnesses wave power for propulsion. After Hine successfully tested a finished version of his invention off the Kona coast of Hawaii, a nearby Naval base caught wind of his project and thought it could be useful for missions.

“They said, ‘Do you have any idea how much money the Navy has spent in the last 40 years trying to build something that could operate independently out in the water?’” Rizzi told Yahoo News. “The next thing we know we had admirals flying out from the Pentagon to jump in the water and see how this thing operated.”

Ten years later, what started as a hobby is now the centerpiece of the world’s go-to water drone supplier — used by oil companies and scientists and, most notably, in classified missions for the Department of Defense.

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The latest version of the Wave Glider, dubbed the SV3, during a beta test run in Hawaii. The company has a test facility there. (Photo: Liquid Robotics)

Liquid Robotics is one of the many Silicon Valley startups being tapped by the Pentagon in its scramble to stay on the cutting edge of innovation. Earlier this year, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Stephen Welby dropped by its Sunnyvale headquarters while on a tour of Silicon Valley startups. And just last week, both the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon announced that they would open satellite offices in the Bay Area.

Both agencies hope that being present in the nation’s unofficial tech capital will allow them to strengthen the government’s relationships with tech companies and, as DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said at a San Francisco conference last week, “convince some of the talented workforce here in Silicon Valley to come to Washington.” Specifically, the Pentagon plans for its office — due to open next month in Moffett Field — to function somewhat like a venture capital firm, funding promising startups in the areas of security and surveillance.

Among the 3D printing, big data and machine learning companies these agencies plan to target, Liquid Robotics serves an overlooked need to monitor sometimes nefarious activities that take place in murky ocean waters. On land, surveillance cameras are everywhere — on the outside of buildings and the smartphones of most bystanders. But as last year’s disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 proved, the same does not apply in the oceans. When something happens in the middle of the sea — whether it’s a plane crash, an oil spill or a drug deal — chances are no one will be watching.

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Liquid Robotics employees monitoring the paths of Wave Gliders out in the wild from their Sunnyvale headquarters. (Photo: Liquid Robotics)

“The ocean is really underserved,” Liquid Robotics CEO Gary Gysin told me when I visited the company’s homey Sunnyvale headquarters in March. A mug that read “Keep Calm and Wave Glide On” sat perched on the windowsill next to the native Californian’s desk. “It’s expensive, it’s hard to put sensors out to figure out what’s happening, it’s dangerous with a manned ship, and it’s also a lot of area to cover.”

Ocean surveillance systems have been around for decades in the form of satellites, submarines and buoys. But none are as truly autonomous and cost-efficient as the Wave Glider. It resembles an oversize boogie board, barely visible from the top of the water save for a few knobs and rods. Because it can covertly float atop the sea, it’s able to collect information both above and below the surface. And while other vehicles are immobile or require manned ships to drag them through the ocean, the Wave Glider is designed to propel itself by wave power alone, while solar panels power its electronics. Each unit is programmed to follow a set of unique GPS coordinates on a continuous loop and is either monitored from a small pilot room at the Liquid Robotics headquarters or — in the case of top-secret situations — by government agency officials executing the mission.

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A few SV3 models waiting on their way to launch. The Liquid Robotics team is made up of about 110 people, including employees on the East Coast and in Asia and Europe. (Photo: Liquid Robotics)

For an average price of about $225,000, anyone can purchase a sleuthing robot to monitor a designated patch of water. But it costs more for Liquid Robotics’ support in launching, monitoring and maintaining the vehicle. Wave Gliders are also incredibly resilient and can float around for a year before they’re brought back to the workshop for a checkup and a barnacle wipe.

Just as these unmanned water drones give you flexibility in how long you want to spend at sea, they’re also easy to control without getting your hands dirty. You can update your unit remotely if you want to change the location of your surveillance site or adjust a Wave Glider’s movement in response to weather. Last summer, for instance, Gysin was setting up a unit in the Arctic and, mid-installation, its compass went haywire from the pull of the magnetic pole. To compensate, chief software architect James Gosling remotely loaded code into the vehicle, and the problem was instantly solved. The latest version of the Wave Glider, a faster, heftier, longer model called the SV3, is even programmed to recognize and autonomously avoid objects that are coming its way — although that hasn’t prevented the occasional shark bite or seal hitchhiker.

The real power of the invention, however, lies in its snooping abilities. Each board can be outfitted with up to 51 different types of sensors. Those additions are determined entirely by the needs of the client, whether environmental, geophysical or military.

For example, Liquid Robotics works with Schlumberger, an oil and gas services company that is required to monitor the environmental impact of its driling. Its Wave Gliders are decked out with tools to measure seismic activity, magnetic field and water quality. Then they’re set loose in underwater drilling areas or areas traversed by its ships to look for leaks.

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A Wave Glider nicknamed Malia on the water before a hurricane-tracking mission. (Photo: Liquid Robotics)

Barbara Block, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute, outfits hers with acoustic sensors to follow the migration of great white sharks off the Pacific coast of Mexico. She and her team then use a small boat with a seal decoy to lure sharks to the surface, attaching tags to their backs as they emerge. Those tags contain acoustic transmitters, which communicate the animal’s location to a sensor on the Wave Glider.

A large part of Liquid Robotics’ business is reconnaissance for both the U.S. and foreign governments. Typically, security agencies outfit these boards with hydrophones, photographic equipment and satellite communications systems. Though Gysin can’t discuss specific missions, he confirmed that Wave Gliders have been used to stop human trafficking and drug smuggling. They’re also often used in highly contested waters like the South China Sea, where the board is the first point of contact for a process called “tipping” and “cuing.” After detecting activity, it alerts government officials of whatever country is keeping watch, which can dispatch drones to attack the intruder. Unlike the United States’ fleet of aerial drones, however, Wave Gliders are not weaponized. Currently Liquid Robotics has no plans to lead the company down that route.

The Wave Glider owes its extensive capabilities to its customizable guts. Within the body of each board is a seven-unit server rack that runs on Linux and has a JavaScript control system designed by Gosling, the inventor of the Java programming language. This allows companies to develop their own software applications for the board, as well as their own sensors. Gysin likens it to the operations systems of common smartphones.

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A SV2 model predeployment. (Photo: Liquid Robotics)

“You could think of us as the iPhone without apps,” he said. “We’re not antisubmarine warfare experts or seismic experts or ship detection experts, but we partner with people that are, who can add that on top of the platform. And we make a darn good platform that can last for a year at sea.”

This ability to customize is especially attractive to those in the Pentagon working to modernize the military. Since the 1970s, the U.S. military relied on technologies developed in Silicon Valley to bolster its defense efforts. It has traditionally operated on the 10-to-30-year product cycle of aircraft carriers, submarines and fighter aircraft. That’s changing.

“They’re trying to figure out: How do we harness Silicon Valley and everything that’s going on from a high-tech perspective in more rapid terms?” Gysin said. “They’re not there yet, but all the leadership we deal with are driving from the top down, saying, ‘We’ve got to reinvent ourselves and reinvent how we engage with Silicon Valley.’”

Gysin recalled a “super-secret” conference he recently attended in Monterey, California, that brought together 270 government employees, 170 venture capitalists, and about 70 CEOs. The directors of both the CIA and the NSA were in attendance.

“The message was all the same,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to harness Silicon Valley to remain competitive, because other people are doing it, other nations are moving fast. We’ve got to morph from this acquisition model that’s 10 decades old to something new.”

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A Wave Glider in the workshop at Liquid Robotics’ Sunnyvale headquarters. Research-based models are typically yellow, while those used for surveillance are black. (Photo: Liquid Robotics)

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