When you think of the town of Albury, located on the border of NSW and Victoria, beaches, coral reefs and tropical weather aren’t exactly things that one might think about the region – and for good reason. With the nearest beach about giving you a bit of change out of spending four hours in the car, maritime drones and the development of cutting edge robotic technologies perhaps don’t exactly spring to mind and dispel thoughts of lazy inland rivers, lakes and the nearby ski-fields for which the region is more widely known. However, new AHA member Firetail Robotics is setting out to change the perception of what value looks like in the autonomous and aquatic sensing industry through its’ Surfbee platform and to work with a range of forward looking water organisations who want a better insight into their flowing assets and the environment.
To understand this truly unique business, it’s worth stepping back to understand the genesis of Surfbee. Surfbee was born out of parent company Firetail Robotics, a business started by Jack Hurley, a born and bred local who played around with basically anything that could float or fly both on or above the region’s lakes and rivers. ‘I got to a point where my flying took me around Australia, firstly in choppers mustering in the West, but that was only the start. Before long, aerial asset inspection became a bigger focus, however the software we were using to route and track these assets simply wasn’t up to scratch.’ To cut a long story short, the move out of flying and into software development took Jack to Asia and North America, building a business that was eventually acquired by Trimble. After a number of years overseas, Jack returned to Australia and has advised ASX Top 20 CEOs and boards on in-house innovation programs and launched his own incubation program. However, things that fly and float remained his great interest, and his frustrations with the expense and limitations of drone hardware and software led him to create the Firetail Drone, which was a low-cost, easy to deploy aerial drone powered by a proprietary autopilot. This product won the 2016 Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs Pacific Humanitarian Challenge. In field testing this product in the Pacific islands, it became apparent that there was perhaps an even greater need for low cost and low risk intra island and open ocean surface transport, to augment the practices of intra island transport of goods in small outboards and dinghy in both normal daily life and disaster response scenarios.
Thus the first Surfbee was born, and fast forward to 2021 and Surfbee is now a fully functioning project, with an impressive suite of products and capabilities. Says Jack – ‘It’s a great position to be in that Surfbee is now able to operate as a significant operation in its own right. Whilst the early development of the Surfbee is perhaps one of my career highlights, I felt it was the right time to bring in an expert with deep expertise in the water industry and the connections to take Surfbee to the next level.’
Of course, who Jack is referring to is the new CEO of Surfbee, Evan Leahy. Based at the Albury headquarters of Firetail and within walking distance of the mighty Murray, Evan is a hydrographer with an extensive track record in the industry, most recently with WaterNSW for a number of years. Reflecting on the move to Firetail, Evan said “the water industry is always changing and evolving – Jack and I had been talking for some time about the Surfbee, and what excited me was the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of technological innovation and being able to work really closely with members of our client organisations to improve their real time understanding of their operations and environments.’
With a family background in engineering, Evan leads a small but highly skilled team at Firetail , which means that improvements to the platform don’t go through lengthy committees or endless approvals – but are rather received from clients (often in partnership) and changes can often be actioned in a matter of hours. Evan noted that ‘we often tell people that we’ve trialled some iteration to the platform that might better suit the clients needs, and we’re talking timeframes of hours and days. When customers are used to previous platforms having no flexibility…to be able to deliver this level of customer service is pretty exciting.‘ When asked about the regional base, a long way from the beach, Evan mentioned that people ‘simply want the capability, and we’re proving that with the partnerships we’ve got – large businesses, research institutions and government and public service organisations are working with us – and we’re proud of that – Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in QLD use the Surfbee to ‘pollinate’ coral babies onto climate affected coral reefs, Water NSW utilise the Surfbee for ADCP measurement and to think that’s coming from Albury, well, that’s pretty exciting.’
Evan closed by saying ‘Albury probably isn’t the first place people think of when you mention high tech innovation and manufacturing, but the skillset here is actually pretty incredible, given the supporting industries that go alongside major employers and infrastructure we have here – Woolworths Distribution Centres, Transport and Trucking, Defence manufacturers, etc… and of course Lake Hume and the rivers being the basis of the irrigation industry across the Murray Darling Basin – hopefully we can be a pretty big part of that local story in years to come.’
What makes the Surfbee unique as a maritime robot?
Evan noted that across his years of working in the water industry it became apparent that difficult water monitoring duties got put on hold or stopped altogether due to WHS concerns, complexity of deployment and cost. This sparked an interest in finding ways to satisfy these issues. Evan said “As a Hydrographer ADCP gaugings were a part of my weekly duties using existing deployment methods eg kayak, manned boat, remote controlled vessel, wading or a wire. Every deployment method has its strengths and weaknesses and I started to conceptualize and design ways to minimise the weaknesses and add other features to enhance the use of remote controlled vessels. This led to various prototypes and hundreds of hours of testing over a few years.
The end result was the Flow Seeker -the workhorse of the Surfbee family- a vessel designed around excelling in conditions a Hydrographer encounters 90% of the time while taking flow measurements. With the design intentions focusing on being portable, maneuverable, fast enough for most conditions and offering autonomous features like position hold and automated transects.
“WaterNSW was looking for a remote platform to deploy ADCP’s that would be suited to Australian Conditions.It had to be light, and easily deployable and not add too many additional steps to our current workflows. The initial Surfbee product ticked many of those boxes straight away, with improved handling and minimal downtime and easy to source spares when required. The team at FireTail Robotics have been very receptive to our feedback and look to be developing a really good package that will deliver additional functionality than is available on the market currently as well as providing efficiency and most of all good safety outcomes.”
Water Monitoring Area Manager (South East) Water NSW
While in the Flow Seeker’s development cycle it was obvious that this type of technology stretched beyond ADCP gauging and into other aspects of water monitoring.
The Surfbee Queen was born out of a need to deploy larger payloads for longer periods. These payloads include water quality profiling equipment using a inhouse developed winch deploying multi parameter sensing equipment at user defined depths and locations autonomously. Water sampling is in development as well either at the surface or throughout the water column.
Bathymetry survey tasks can be performed with the Surbee deploying most types of multibeam and single beam survey equipment. This is enhanced with the Surfbee being able to output RTK GPS data to the payload.
When the surfbee was conceptualised, it was designed from a human centred and values based standpoint. Surfbee exists because maritime environmental sensing needs to be democratised, by making available the tools needed to get better environmental data to a wider group of users outside of academia and research, including citizen scientists and businesses wanting to make a positive impact on the ocean and aquatic environments. The way that they can be made available is by making these tools better, faster, cheaper and easier to use.
By looking at the total user experience, Surfbee has been able to create a vessel and sensing hardware and software platform that will be nimble enough to be carried in a backpack yet strong enough to transport a full sensing payload over 100km. The Surfbee team has worked closely with a number of OEM sensor manufacturers including Xylem to ensure that deploying a wide range of sensors onto the Surfbee is quick and trouble free. Other USV’s offering this degree of capability are normally difficult to use for less skilled operators, lack real time communications and analysis and are harder to transport or are fragile and lack the robustness of our sturdy platform.
Autonomous Mission Planning, Deployment and Sensing Capabilities
The Surfbee stands apart from other marine survey robots and offers users unparalleled flexibility. This is due in large part to the ability to pre-plot survey routes within the proprietary marine autopilot. Of course, the Surfbee can be piloted in real time by an operator from anywhere (network choice dependent) in the world and as such utilises a best of breed custom mission control capability. Surfbee will then return to base or some other predetermined point. The Surfbee’s autopilot firmware can be modified at any time to suit the environment and in doing this allows rapid changes to happen in the field. Surfbee is compatible with a range of high and low end transducers and side scans, and of course, it handles ADCP tasks with ease. Additional value comes from the fact that the flexibility of the platform handles additional capabilities like real time mapping with RTK GPS accuracy, and has a best of breed winch capability, complete with automated depth variation for deployed sensors, developed for the likes of Xylem.
Why Choose Surfbee?
We have the capability to meet your needs
We think we’ve got a pretty good insight into what’s coming next in aquatic hydrometry sensing, so we decided to build these platform capabilities into Surfbee now. Why wait for someone else to do it? We’re building the most flexible and future proof suite of complementary aquatic survey tools and products on the market, delivering users actionable and accurate data. Our ultimate aim is to do it quicker, cheaper and better than existing approaches. We believe that focussing on ease of use combined with great capability and value is the best way forward. When measured against competitors, Surfbee radically reduces the time and cost needed to learn and deploy the tools on which to collect the necessary data.
Get actionable data quicker – focus on the task, not the tech.
Our team members have won Australian government grants to deploy humanitarian UAVs in drone trials in the Pacific region where they taught non English speakers who had never used the technology before to fly our aerial drones in less than 30 minutes, such was the ease of use of those platforms. As such,we have the skills to rapidly iterate with partners and customers to meet their specific needs quicker than other businesses.
Flexibility and Rapid Response
Lagoon AI also specialise in environmental actionable response meaning a traditional environmental sensor like the Xylem YSI EXO 2 can integrate with the Lagoon AI system with real time data fed into the Lagoon AI edge device to autonomously make decisions with no human input for example. A Surfbee is deployed to detect low oxygen levels and when found, it could automate the mapping process by profiling at depth and also call on other Surfbee platforms in the area to concentrate on this work area. In the future it would be possible for the Surfbee Lagoon AI to autonomously activate Surfbee Oxygenation Drone Vessels to carry out work in specific areas.
So whilst the Lagoon AI is focussed on marine AI sensing, we’ve got the experience to build out AI tools to identify and meet a wide range of asset inspection and on water works scenarios. Reach out to discuss your project with the Surfbee team.
Future Proof Purchasing
Most capital expenditure purchases in the field currently depreciate in value and usefulness over an effective working life of a product, as new technologies replace existing ones. However, as Artificial Intelligence based systems become the norm and models can be continuously ‘taught’ and fed refined data, their performance has the potential to actually improve with time.
This is a massive competitive advantage in terms of capital allocation to an asset that has the potential to increase its lifetime value – deploying these on a robotic platform that offers unparalleled flexibility and capability like the Surfbee is the right call.
The surfbee is ready for these kinds of missions right now – so reach out to Evan and the team to see what value a Firetail can deliver to your organisation.