Tectoria: Rowers riding the high-tech wave with robotic boats

Julie Angus and her husband, Colin, learned a lot about the ocean during the five months it took them to row from Portugal to Costa Rica.

Quite apart from determining there’s a reason most people don’t tackle the Atlantic Ocean and hurricanes with only humans to power the vessel, the couple realized just how little is known about the world’s oceans.

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The trip sparked an idea that has become their start-up tech firm, Open Ocean Robotics.

The two year-old company produces solar-powered, autonomous boats equipped with sensors and cameras that can collect information and relay data in real time.

“There are huge applications for this, 80% of the ocean is unknown, unmapped,” said Julie Angus, who was showing off one of their boats and showcasing the company at the Victoria Innovation, Advanced Technology and Entrepreneurship Council’s Discover Tectoria event at Crystal Garden on Thursday.

“When you spend a lot of time on the ocean, you realize people don’t know how hard it is to see what goes on out there,” she said, adding when she and Colin faced two hurricanes during the crossing they realized there had to be a better way to go out and explore.

“The automaton solves those issues. It can go out in conditions no crewed vessel can go out in and can stay out for months at a time,” she said, adding it’s also a more cost-effective way of doing research.

The company, which has eight employees, is doing a pilot project mapping the sea floor for the Canadian Coast Guard and another for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans relaying real-time data on ocean currents, temperature and salinity.

The need, said Julie Angus, is immense.

“If we want to protect our oceans and have industry operate in them, we have to embrace technology,” she said.

Angus said it was important for the young company to be at Tectoria, a showcase of what makes Victoria’s tech industry tick, to both promote itself and the plight of the ocean.

“This is about being part of the tech community, and it’s cool to showcase all the incredible innovation we have here in Victoria,” she said.

At the day-long event, thousands of people checked out the latest in research from the University of Victoria, heard speakers talk about the growth of Victoria’s tech industry and how to get careers in the industry, and saw which young companies are preparing to test the marketplace.

That included new firms along “Start-up Alley” with innovative twists on office furniture, robotics and marine services such as Wisertech Marine Services, which has 10 employees despite being active for only a few months. Wisertech founder Edward Wisernig said the firm has developed marine products from mooring solutions to augmented reality navigation systems.

On Thursday, he was showing off the company’s solar-energy capture system for boats, which, he believes, is the only sun-tracking device available. He said its 150-watt solar panel will provide the same energy as five 100-watt flat solar panels.

The system captures energy through photovoltaic solar panels and by using a stainless mirror and a solar collector.

Unlike flat panels that only get a percentage of the sun during the day, the system can track and capture energy from full sun through the day, he said.

“It’s designed to reduce the number of solar panels while getting the same amount of energy,” he said, noting 150 watts would power a fridge, electronics and charge a boat’s batteries.

Jerome Etwaroo, associate director of the Coast Capital Savings Innovation Centre at UVic, which helps student entrepreneurs takes ideas and concepts to market, said Tectoria is circled on their calendar every year.

“It’s great, it brings the community together and showcases some of the great things that are happening,” he said.

For start-up firms, it’s a chance to build connections and get feedback before going to market. “What better place to get candid feedback than this?” Etwaroo said.

Industry veterans also see the value in the event.

“It makes you aware of everything going on in the city,” said Scott Dewis, chief vision officer at Race Rocks 3-D. “Most tech companies don’t sell to Victoria, they sell to the world, so to get them together and see what they are actually doing is pretty neat.”

Dewis said his company was on the trade show floor because it is always looking for talent.

Race Rocks hired 18 people last year and expects to grow this year.

“The trouble is finding people who are available,” he said. “There’s now so many tech firms and every one is growing.”

The Victoria tech sector, which generates about $4 billion in annual revenue from 904 companies, employs about 20,000 people.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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