These Autonomous Ocean-Going Robot Boats Just Got Way More Powerful

The Liquid Robotics wave gliders have been plying the ocean for months, powered by nothing but the waves. Today, they got a big upgrade.

Last December, a group of four wave gliders took a 9,000-nautical-mile autonomous trip from Northern California to Australia. They moved slowly–one and a half knots at most–and used their onboard sensors to measure all sorts of data points, including salinity levels and phytoplankton activity.


Liquid Robotics and its fleet these of surfboard-size, wave-powered boats are revolutionary for companies that work in the water. Today, wave gliders are used for over 60 applications–oil and gas exploration, fishery management, carbon-output measurements, and more. They sense all the things that satellites and other boats miss. And this week, Liquid Robotics announced that a supercharged, wave- and solar-powered version of the tiny boat, the Wave Glider SV3, is available to order.

There are some big differences between the SV3 and the original wave glider, which will get some upgrades of its own along with a new name (the SV2) later this year. Instead of propelling itself by wave power alone, the SV3 uses a combination of wave and solar power (previously solar power was used just to power onboard equipment) to go faster. It has an expandable power system, an operating system that lets the boats operate in swarms, and the ability to grant multiple customers secure access to data from the same boat (Liquid Robotics lets customers pay for access to wave gliders without actually purchasing them).

If the California-to-Australia trip had been taken with some SV3 boats, it would have been a bit different. “SV3 could have carried more equipment, more sensors, collected more channels of data, and it would have gone faster,” says Bill Vass, CEO of Liquid Robotics. “It has the ability to move more quickly through the ocean, operate more predictably, and carry a lot more power.”

All the extra onboard computing power means that the SV3 can process large amounts of data onboard. “If you’re out doing some type of video collection looking for boats where they’re not supposed to be or doing fishery density populations, you don’t want to send back a video stream. You’re patrolling for a year, and most of the time that you’re patrolling you’re going to see waves. You don’t want to send back a year’s worth of waves,” says Vass. “With processing on board, [the boat] only sends back the interesting things.” There is enough onboard storage, however, that the SV3 can also bring back raw data.

The SV2 and the SV3 are the first of many platforms we’ll see from Liquid Robotics. All of them will take on the dirty work that just can’t be done as efficiently–or at all–by humans. Says Vass: “Autonomous vehicles are out there to do long duration, boring, important tasks that are dangerous.”

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.