(San Diego, California; 13 Nov. 2014) Four of the six largest companies making acoustic Doppler current profilers – complex machines that measure water currents and temperatures at a range of depths – have significant footprints in San Diego. They are examples of the largely hidden “Blue Tech” economy in the region, said Michael Jones, head of the Maritime Alliance, a trade group that organized the Blue Tech and Blue Economy Summit in Point Loma this week.
The Maritime Alliance says San Diego has one of the largest clusters of technology firms specializing in ocean/hydro applications in the country, thanks to the large U.S. Navy presence in the region and research centers such at UC-San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Current estimates have businesses in the region numbering 14,000 private sector enterprises ranging from from small one person operations to companies with many employees.
Government and academic researchers tap these local firms for equipment and software – ranging from heavy duty cables and electronics to remotely operated underwater vehicles.
So when researchers are trying to predict an El Niño or La Niña weather event – which are sparked by the rise and fall of ocean temperatures in the Pacific – they very well could be using equipment made in San Diego.
Teledyne RD Instruments, for example, makes acoustic Doppler current profilers. Founded in 1981, the 200 employee firm manufactures the devices in San Diego. “The company revolutionized the ability to measure current in water,” said Darryl Symonds, director of the maritime measurements products for Teledyne RD Instruments.
Its technology pinpoints currents at various depths. It also charts temperature and density – or how much salt is in water. It can be used in rivers, canals and pipes, said Symonds. Customers include the oil and gas industry, researchers and government agencies, which tap the instruments for everything from weather forecasting to predicting the environmental impact of building a jetty.
Teledyne RD is part of conglomerate Teledyne Technologies of Thousand Oaks, which in October acquired Carlsbad-based Oceanscience Group for an undisclosed price. Oceanscience designs and manufactures marine sensor platforms and unmanned surface vehicles.
The economic impact of the Maritime/Blue Tech in San Diego is difficult to gauge. A 2012 study sponsored by the Maritime Alliance and the San Diego Regional Economic Development Council found that about 8,000 people work in traditional maritime businesses such as ocean shipping and fishing. Another 19,000 work in Blue Tech, such as desalination and clean water technologies, maritime robotics and ocean science.
And about 18,000 work in industries that include some maritime activities but are not exclusively maritime industries.
In all, the study estimated the economic impact of San Diego’s maritime economy at $14 billion.
San Diego’s Ocean Aero is an example of Blue Tech. It makes an unmanned vessel that can operate on the surface as well as at depths of 200 meters. Two years in development, initial beta devices are expected to be delivered to customers in a few months. In July, Ocean Aero received a $2.75 million investment from Teledyne.
Resembling a bulked up windsurfing board, Ocean Aero craft can operate at sea for six to nine for months – collecting data in real time, said vice president Ken Childress. It’s solar and wind powered. Oil and gas, fisheries and researchers are potential customers.
“The vessel is really a platform that can be adapted to carry a number of instruments,” said Childress.
SeaBotix, which has 70 employees, makes a remotely operated underwater drone equipped with cameras that deliver high resolution video of what’s happening on the sea floor. A majority of the San Diego company’s business today is related to the military/government. But it is seeing growth in commercial markets such as aquaculture. Teledyne is in the process of purchasing SeaBotix.
VitalNRG, a local start up, has developed a system to capture random motion – such as choppy ocean waves or even a person walking – and focus it in one direction to generate power.
The company is still in the very early stages, said President Kevin Barrett. It’s unclear how much power the technology can generate at a reasonable size.
Still, he envisions that it might power open ocean sensor buoys more reliably than solar. The company has been funded by an angel investor. Barrett said he would like to team up with companies that have expertise in maritime to help build a complete system.
“Our goal is not just to raise money,” he said. “Our goal is to find partners, anyone who could add value.”