There was something serendipitous, even spooky, about the origins of Auckland-based underwater tech firm, Boxfish Research.
In early 2014, co-founder Ben King, a biomedical engineer with a keen interest in diving, was visiting Lake Pupuke on Auckland’s North Shore to test a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) – essentially, a mini-submarine – that he’d built.
The test was a disappointment, but even as King was packing up, a couple of guys arrived and launched their own submersible. What were the chances?
“I thought, ‘That’s uncanny’,” he recalls. “I introduced myself, had a chat, and said ‘We should get together and do this properly’.”
Boxfish was launched soon afterwards, a collaboration between King, data scientist and software expert Axel Busch, and electronics and software entrepreneur Craig Anderson, all of them longtime divers.
The goal: to develop a cutting-edge mini-sub, something capable of delivering the performance of much larger ROVs in an affordable and portable package.
Two years of intensive R&D later and the partners are poised to release the Boxfish ROV, tagged as “the first mini submersible built specifically for filmmakers, scientists, educators and explorers”, and “a supremely stable platform from which to work efficiently and shoot beautiful video”.
King says the ROV will hopefully ship later this year. Meantime, Boxfish is releasing a unique 360 degree underwater camera, initially targeted at divers, but with potential to eventually be integrated into the mini-sub.
A special innovation
It’s an exciting moment, and already there’s been enthusiasm expressed by some government agencies and private companies about possible applications of the ROV.
So what’s so special about Boxfish’s innovation? There’s that portability – the ROV weighs just 28kg, including camera – which allows it to be used on small recreational vessels. It also has a drone-like level of manoeuvrability, thanks to eight-vectored thruster propulsion, while its dynamic stabilisation system provides a stable platform for production quality video.
Although for now the ROV is tethered to an operator on the ocean’s surface, eventually the team want to develop an autonomous submersible, potentially with accessories to enable it to collect scientific samples and other data.
“You can basically achieve what previously you’d have needed a much larger ROV to do, in terms of stability, image quality and potential add-ons,” says King, whose motivation has always been to equip scientists and others to do things under water that were once beyond them.
Three heads are better than one
It’s been a potent partnership, with the three co-founders bringing complementary skills and interests to the table.
King took the lead on mechanical design; Anderson, an expert in control systems and firmware, tackled the electronics and control software; while Busch focused on the user interface, as well as the business side.
King describes the arrangement as three guys with a passion for the sea, each having individual, but overlapping strengths.
The result, he adds, “is that we’ve been able to get a lot done with very little external help”.
There are a raft of potential applications and users for the submersible, including science, education, exploration, aquaculture and filmmaking, as well as inspection applications for government agencies such as customs.
King cites growing demand for seabed monitoring of marine farms, and the ongoing crackdown on ships bringing invasive species into New Zealand waters as opening up potential new markets.
Using an ROV, he says, you could inspect the underside of ship hulls before they came into port.
It’s early days, and there are the usual challenges around financing. But the Boxfish guys have serious ambitions. “There’s potential for this to be a major international business,” he says.