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Friendly Wave-Powered Robots Now Working For Oil And Gas Companies

The adorable boats of Liquid Robotics have served as important research tools for people studying the ocean and the environment. Now they’re being employed in a less cuddly mission: helping search out sites for offshore drilling.

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Ambitious projects—like creating a fleet of autonomous, wave-powered robots to monitor the world’s oceans—cost a lot of money to maintain. So while some people would undoubtedly prefer that ventures like Liquid Robotics (the company behind the aforementioned boats and one of Fast Company’s 50 Most Innovative Companies) stay pure, working only on projects like tracking fish and tsunamis, the reality is that companies need to make money. And there’s one major industry operating in our oceans that has a lot of it: the oil and gas industry. It makes sense, then, that Liquid Robotics’ first joint venture would be with an oil company.

Liquid Robotics’ wave glider robot, the first marine robot that can run on wave energy, has virtually endless uses, including tracking water quality, collecting atmospheric data, tracking changes in ocean chemistry, and even just cruising the world’s oceans to see what kind of data it can find (a series of wave gliders are currently crossing the Pacific ocean, collecting unprecedented amounts of ocean surface data along the way). The robot, which packs numerous sensors, a satellite and wireless communications system, GPS, and more, can run for a year without stopping.

So far, Liquid Robotics has worked with organizations like NOAA, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and oil and gas companies, which make up a third of the company’s revenue. As part of a new joint venture with Schlumberger NV, named Liquid Robotics Oil & Gas, the company will expand its reach in the offshore oil market. And no—this doesn’t mean that Liquid Robotics is now wed to the oil industry.

Sure, the 250-pound wave gliders will help with the planning and installation of offshore oil facilities—something that might make anyone with a memory of the BP oil disaster flinch (incidentally, Liquid Robotics helped BP with water-quality monitoring in the Gulf of Mexico). But Liquid Robotics Oil & Gas will also do plenty of good—think spill detection, monitoring for post-oil-spill remediation, and measurements of things like wave height and surface currents.

"We don’t need to put people on a boat to go out and perform these functions. We can have [the robots] run autonomously for days or months on end, constantly monitoring weather, sea state, surface conditions, constantly monitoring water quality, environmental quality of the water," explains Steven Springsteel, Liquid Robotics chief operating officer and chief financial officer. "It’s something that’s continually communicating with subsea sensors so you don’t have to have people out there."

It’s not as if offshore drilling will end anytime soon; in the meantime, we’d rather have robots doing the dirty work than humans. And think of it this way: all that money from the wealthy oil and gas industry might allow Liquid Robotics to pursue more missions for climate science and offshore renewable energy projects.

Liquid Robotics Oil & Gas will likely charge subscription fees for oil and gas companies to use the wave glider robots and access their data. No word on exact pricing—or how many robots will be deployed as part of the venture—but Liquid Robotics generally charges $1,500 to $3,000 daily for data collection.