Sydney-based SME Ocius Technology has officially christened the latest addition to their fleet of Bluebottle unmanned surface vessels (USVs).
The new USV, named Beth, is longer and larger than previous iterations Bob and Bruce. It will carry Thales Australia towed arrays, a larger winch, and Solar Composite Structures crafted by SA-based Praxis Aeronautics, a start-up headed by siblings Cameron and Katie Donaldson.
“Politically and economically, the oceans are still like the Wild West,” Ocius founder Rob Dane said to a small group of attendees. “And Australia’s responsible for 11 per cent of it. Monitoring it is expensive, we don’t get 100 per cent coverage, puts people in harm’s way and the coronavirus now makes it that much harder. That’s why we’re here.”
The company has a contract through the Defence Innovation Hub to build five of the next generation Bluebottle USVs, of which Beth is the first. Over the next two years, these will be deployed off the coast of WA and the NT to conduct various taskings.
The Bluebottles have significant potential in a variety of different roles. A number could act together as a wide-area sonar array to listen for submarines, or a single Bluebottle could act as a ‘gateway node’ between platforms in the air and under the surface, such as future unmanned underwater vessels (UUVs) or an undersea surveillance system. The company is currently exploring this latter possibility in a program with DST Group.
Civilian applications also abound, such as marine and weather monitoring in hard-to-reach areas, GPS mapping or hydrocarbon monitoring. Charles Darwin University is involved with Ocius in a climate and oceanography project.
One of the Bluebottle’s unique selling points, Dane explained, is also one of its simplest. The trailer, designed by chairman Mark Bethwaite, who christened the new boat, allows two people with a car to launch a Bluebottle from any boat ramp in Australia.
“Our better funded competitors in America can’t do that,” Dane said. “They need a boat or a massive crane.”
Ocius first used an off-the-shelf solar panel mounted on the deck to power the Bluebottles, but the partnership with Praxis Aeronautics, which came about through a chance meeting at the Avalon Airshow in 2019, has proven revolutionary.
“We first built Ocius a foredeck for Bruce,” Katie Donaldson said to ADM. “We’re now contracted to build for Beth.”
“The power management that we supplied was first developed through our work on UAVs,” Cameron Donaldson added. “We will be using several of those in the new build.
“The silicon cells that we use are far more efficient that what people generally encounter with domestic or commercial solar. Our manufacturer puts aside the best-performing batches for mobile power applications like ours.”
Solar cells are now encapsulated directly into the deck and sail composites using a unique proprietary process.
“We’ve more than doubled the number of cells on their foredeck, just because we can design the array into any shape,” Cameron said. “There was also an increase in the performance of the cells.
“What we’ve found is that we’ve more than doubled the amount of energy they’re collecting from the foredeck. There’s also a drastic increase in the number of cells of the aft-deck and the sail.”
For Ocius, Praxis designed the Solar Composite Structures for durability. The vessels are able to remain at sea virtually indefinitely, limited only by the build-up of marine life on the hull.
“One of the challenges we face is that each of the applications we are designing for is at the cutting edge therefore each solution required from us is custom,” Katie said. “The requirements of each customer are unique therefore we customise each solution to what they need, balancing the elements of strength, weight, and power.”
“People often ask what the future holds,” Dane said. “Ocius has lived Moore’s law for the last 20 years; things get better and half the cost every two years. So where will we be in two years? I’d say we’ll be twice as good as we are now. And I know my engineers will laugh at that as its probably an overestimation.
“But ask me where we’ll be in 10 or 15 years, when the future frigates and subs come along, and I think I’d underestimate that, [because] Moore’s law is subject to the miracle of compound interest.”
Video of the ceremony can be found here.