The principal challenge faced by Australia’s BlueZone Group as it battles the unforgiving deep ocean is having to depend on slow acoustic feedback from its equipment underwater, a no-go zone for GPS and radio communication.
And then, of course, there is the intense water pressure.
“It is just like deep space only harder,” says Darren Burrowes, Chief Technology Officer at BlueZone, which specialises in robotics and mechatronics for use in coastal seas and deep ocean.
“There are long transmission times to talk to the satellite and to wait for a reply. It is exactly like that underwater because we use acoustics. And then anything you put down underwater clearly has to survive the pressure. So it is a very exacting type of manufacturing. You put something in the water, everything has to be sealed, everything has to be right. It is unforgiving. And that drives quality.”
The business was born 17 years ago with just “two guys and a very big mobile phone,” and now has a 37-strong team across sites in Perth, Newcastle and Melbourne. BlueZone applies world-leading technology to enable operations, science, maintenance and repair to be conducted in underwater and water-based environments.
Defence work makes up around 40 per cent of revenue, as does oil and gas depending on market conditions, and oceanographic and other customers represent the remainder.
International customers include Sweden’s Saab Group, and the Finnish, Danish and Swedish navies.
The firm helps deploy robots to measure ocean temperatures, wind temperatures, swell direction, and monitor the ocean, both on the surface and underwater.
“It is about using the robots to do the dull, dangerous and dirty work and still keep the humans in the loop for the intelligent decision-making.,” Mr Burrowes says.
“The ocean is just huge, the conditions are harsh, the cost of putting a ship to sea is, for a research ship, say $50,000 a day. A crew, a cook, a captain. You can do that now with robots if you want instruments at sea.”
The team expects to boost exports and is confident that as there is more science done in the ocean as time goes on, BlueZone we will be a key supplier of that equipment.
“The oceans touch everyone’s coasts, the oceans drive the world’s weather pattern and the whole climate change science, and so a lot of that is about ocean investigation, investigation of carbon in the ocean and that kind of thing.”
Australia’s claim on the largest marine reserves in the world puts it in pole position for this underwater science.
“We have a huge coastline and then you extend 200 nautical miles from that and add Antarctica and island claims. To me you cannot go around claiming that unless you are going to measure what’s there, manage what is there, and make sure that nobody else is doing what they should not be doing there,” Mr Burrowes says.
“Australia does bring something to the table and there is a big opportunity. We have got world class science that punches above our weight in producing papers and doing work in the lab. The missing connection is getting it out of the lab and commercialising it and it is companies like us that can do that.”
BlueZone is able to put software into manufactured components, putting sensors at sea that can collect and process data, decide what it is and send alerts to shore so ships are not required.
“We don’t see a lot of competition in autonomous underwater vehicles and ocean robotics because it is just really exacting getting it right. That smart end of manufacturing is where the future is.”
Past projects include participating in the Minehunter Coastal project which built six sophisticated sea mine ‘search and destroy’ ships, and Shark Mitigation Systems ‘clever buoys’, using sonar devices, which are in first trials on public beaches in Western Australia.
BlueZone has also done projects for subsea trenches, where large vehicles drive along the ocean floor, dig a trench and bury a cable. The company has connected offshore windmills in the Netherlands, for example, and trenched a cable across St Petersburg harbor.
The Snowy Mountain Hydro expansion scheme also presents opportunities.
“All the rivers that flow into that need to be measured and monitored. We provide all that type of equipment. Taking surveys of the river that feeds in and the dam infrastructure; we will provide the tools to do those sort of inspections — underwater cameras, underwater lights, sonar equipment, and other specialised equipment,” says Mr Burrowes.
He applauds recent moves to get industry at the forefront of defence manufacturing again, noting that defence is a huge buyer of high-tech which can sustain interesting high-tech jobs in manufacturing.
“I am a big fan of Australian industry involvement because industry is a fundamental input to defence capability. You can’t have a navy, army, or airforce without industry to build things, repair things, make things, manufacture things for defence. I am pleased to see that realisation make a comeback.”