Kraken Robotics nets $3M to build new ‘Thunderfish’ autonomous underwater vehicle

The Thunderfish XL will be built with funding from the National Research Council of Canada. (Submitted by Kraken Robotics)

St. John’s-based Kraken Robotics is taking its technology prowess to new heights — or perhaps, depths — after securing almost $3 million to build an autonomous underwater vehicle that will be capable of staying underwater for a year and making decisions there on its own.

The money from the National Research Council of Canada is going toward developing the AUV, dubbed the Thunderfish XL, and is completely unique from anything Kraken has built in the past, the company says.

“It’s designed to be seabed resident,” said David Shea, Kraken’s senior vice-president of engineering.

“Rather than being sent out on a mission and then recovered and recharged in between missions, it’s actually designed to live on a docking station on the seafloor for up to a year.”

Kraken expects the Thunderfish XL to be able to reach depths of 6,000 metres, in the zone of the ocean where no light penetrates.

It is also designed to be completely autonomous, and will be able to make decisions on its own as to how to proceed when faced with a situation.

“If it detects an anomaly on the pipeline or it detects an object or something that shouldn’t be there, it can autonomously make the decision to stop and go back to that particular spot,” Shea said.

“Either take a camera image or use its laser scanner to give a higher resolution picture of whatever that anomaly might be. Once it’s achieved that, it can continue back on its mission again.”

Shea said the vehicle, which will measure about 4.5 metres long, about 1.5 metres wide, and can weigh up to 2000 kilograms depending on the payload, is designed to unplug from the docking station to work, and can reconnect to recharge its battery autonomously while sending data.

David Shea is the Senior Vice President of Engineering at Kraken Robotics. (Submitted by Kraken Robotics)

Advantages of undersea living

Shea said the ability to live underwater brings a distinct advantage for the vehicle, as it will cut down on costs during missions.

“The most expensive part of any ocean technology operation is generally the vessel. Getting a ship out there, leaving from dock, all the people on board, the fuel that you’re burning,” Shea told CBC Radio’s On The Go.

“The advantage of the Thunderfish XL is that it can actually live out there in the field, there’s no surface vessel required.”

Shea said the battery life of the Thunderfish XL depends on the kind of activity it’s tasked with, but the AUV is designed for 24- to 36-hour missions. The first model of the vehicle will not have what he called “intervention capability,” meaning it will not be able to do things like turn valves or perform other fixes underwater.

However, Shea expects that to be part of future models.

Kraken will be working to develop the Thunderfish XL in partnership with the National Research Council of Canada over a 26-month period. The machine will be built using technology developed by the company, including thrusters, sonar and laser scanners.

“All the building blocks are already within Kraken and within our portfolio,” Shea said.

“The whole development project is really focused on taking those technologies, hardening up some of them to make them more robust and more reliable… and then developing a lot of the intelligence, the autonomy, around this whole system and this whole architecture.”

Kraken Robotics has seen large growth in recent years, with offices in Halifax, Toronto, Boston and Germany. Shea said the company is continuing to grow internationally, but that the heart of the company is still in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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Johny Watshon

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