WorkBoat spoke with Joe Wolfel, CEO of Terradepth, a subsea tech and bathymetric data storage company, to discuss the company’s Absolute Ocean (AO) platform, its contribution to data accessibility, and the mission-specific energy demands of autonomous subsea vehicles.

When asked about the company's origins, Wolfel recounted a pivotal moment when a submarine, the USS San Francisco (USS-711) collided with an underwater mountain on January 8, 2005. Wolfel and his co-founder, Jud Kauffman, were both active-duty Navy seals at the time.

“We spent a lot of our time in the ocean up to that point, but it drove home the fact that we actually don’t know anything about it,” he told WorkBoat.

After the military, Wolfel founded a consulting firm. He recounted a conversation with company executives at the data storage company, Seagate Technologies, which eventually led to Terradepth’s mission.

“We were talking about data in general, and the opportunities at play in a data delivery chain, from data creation to data consumption. That led to the fundamental question, ‘What would it take to map the ocean at a high degree of resolution and then make that data usable and accessible by a larger portion of humanity?’” 

Enter the Absolute Ocean platform, which provides a modern software architecture for easy bathymetric data upload, sharing, and privacy controls. The platform aims to bridge the gap between data creation and consumption, fostering better decision-making about Earth's resources.

Subscribers to AO gain access to publicly available data and the ability to upload, share, or keep private their own datasets. For entities involved in ocean data collection, such as surveyors or marine engineering firms, AO offers a secure and easily shareable platform, allowing them to differentiate and deliver data to their clients effectively.

AO’s application programming interface (API) allows for real-time data collection, transmission, and visualization. The open-source nature of the API encourages users to create applications for visualizing and interacting with data, fostering collaboration, and enabling datasets to be shared and even sold through the platform. As a centralized data repository, AO provides a massive training dataset for machine learning models, also enabling users to develop their own AI applications.

Looking ahead, the company aims to scale observations through robotic assets, making ocean data widely accessible, and enabling stakeholders to drive informed decision-making. The next steps involve deploying robotic data collection assets proactively and enhancing the Absolute Ocean platform for increased user interaction.

“We need to have oceangoing robots patrolling, such that we have ocean data in advance. Then, somebody can click on Absolute Ocean and get what they need, as opposed to going through an 18-month procurement process,” Wolfel said. He simplified this concept to visualize on a scale that many can understand: a fleet of Roombas patrolling the ocean.

He then addressed the correlation between energy requirements and data collection. 

Energy requirements for autonomous surface vessels (ASVs) and subsea robots differ significantly, primarily due to the nature of their tasks and the sensors they utilize. Certain ASVs utilize low-power sensors that collect passive data sets, such as meteorological data or marine life monitoring, and these vessels can rely on solar energy for operation given their relatively modest energy demands.  

That doesn’t work for high-resolution data. 

“If I want a high-resolution data set, I'm putting high frequency sonic energy out into the water column. That takes power,” said Wolfel. “Whatever your operations entail on the ocean floor: whether you're putting something down, picking it up, knowing that its there, understanding the condition that its in, you are going to need a high-resolution dataset. That's why we went hard on the energy recharge piece and the energy output piece.  Essentially what we developed was a hybrid power plant, and we went through a bunch of iterations with that. We considered solar, but we would have had to unfurl a solar sail over 3x."

"We just demonstrated what we believe is the world’s first scalable self-charging subsea drone, which is a big deal."

Terradepth opted for a diesel-electric power system, providing the necessary energy output for sustained operations at depth. This hybrid configuration enables the subsea robots to switch between battery power for underwater tasks and diesel power for recharging batteries and other high-energy activities upon surfacing, autonomously.

Wolfel summarized the company’s motives by the OODA loop. “Observe, orient, decide, act. An observation is simply a data point. The company is focused on massively scaling observations, in our case through robotic means, because that’s where we saw the biggest gap. Absolute Ocean is designed to help orient a wider group of stakeholders to those observations, making it easy to upload, download, and share ocean data. We leave the decisions to those who need to make them. People take action, and round and round we go. The ultimate aim of Terradepth is to enable this ocean OODA loop that doesn’t exist right now.”

Ben Hayden is a Maine resident who grew up in the shipyards of northern Massachusetts. He can be reached at (207) 842-5430 and [email protected].

Small Featured Spot