By Eric Peterson | Jan 31, 2022
Unmanned marine robots
Radford started Nauticus Robotics with a cadre of former NASA engineers after realizing that spaceflight and the bottom of the ocean have a lot in common.
"As it turns out, it's a pretty close analog to what we were doing at NASA," says Radford. "Designing robots to interact with the Moon is a lot like designing one to interact with the seabed: very similar communication environments, very austere networks, low data rates."
Radford sees a big opportunity to rethink maintenance of subsea systems by using mobile electric unmanned robots instead of tethered hydraulic systems. "There's an electrification of the subsea happening," he explains. "Whether it was valves or other componentry underwater, we're replacing that with electric actuation. That led to this overarching vision of a mobile robot being able to do a lot of the same activities."
The status quo for offshore maintenance work typically involves a crew of technicians on a diesel-powered vessel. "We're trying to stress not putting people in so many places," says Radford. "The offshore industry, they don't really get a work-from-home schedule, so robotics is being looked at as a way to alleviate the heavy personnel demands. Long before COVID, the offshore industry was already looking at that due to harsh environmental conditions that really limit when you can do things."
"The robots that are deployed offshore right now are these hydraulic machines run from a room full of people in a really expensive floating hotel, and we decided that was unnecessary," he adds. "For these extremely harsh environments like the offshore world, how can we develop stuff that diminishes the reliance on deployed personnel? That led very strongly into this network of autonomous machines that we're building."
Formerly named Houston Mechatronics, Nauticus has launched a robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) platform with its catalog of Aquanaut -- a 15-foot, 7,400-pound robot that is rated to function nearly 10,000 feet below the water's surface -- and other products.
Radford says the cost is "half the market rate" of legacy maintenance options -- and cleaner and safer. Key markets are renewable energy, telecommunications, aquaculture, and military/intelligence.
"We do have conventional markets like oil and gas, but specifically decommissioning," says Radford. "There's a ton of overlap, because they all sort of take the same basic things. . . . You're inserting pegs into holes, you're moving things, you're rotating things. To us, that's just building blocks to a behavior set that can be conditioned in an AI platform."
That means Nauticus' cloud-connected software is just as fully realized as its robots. "It's real machine intelligence, it's not just automation," says Radford. "We're not just going down there to automate a pick-and-place routine. This is a machine that can make robust decisions online in the presence of real disturbances and real environmental changes and keep working."
Nauticus has built two Aquanauts to date with several more underway. "The moment we're in right now is really pumping our commercialization and manufacturing," says Radford. "We've got multiple units in production. We've built two presently and we've got the third one coming off the assembly line right now. We've got three in production this year, so the company is really going through that morphological change of accelerating commercialization."
Based in a 35,000-square foot facility southeast of Houston in Webster, Nauticus works with a global supply chain centered on Texas. "We're not a machining house -- we're not doing that. We're much more like Boeing," says Radford. "We have contract manufacturing relationships, and we do have subassembly relationships where people will ship us final subassemblies."
Houston has proven an apt home for Nauticus, adds Radford. "It's an incredible city, frankly, an industrial city and it has a booming tech scene. So it was fun to start the company here, and there's a ton of industrial resources, but we have a global supply chain."
Nauticus got started with government contracts, then pivoted to commercialize its technology. "The go-to-market strategy with this company was very purposeful. Because we had a pretty heavy technological lift to get underway," says Radford. "This is an industry we're trying to do a pretty big strategic change with. We had a lot of good government strategic partners and corporate venture capital partners that came in to infuse diluted and non-diluted capital to get the technology matured."
In December 2021, the company announced plans to go public via a SPAC deal with New York-based Clean Tech Acquisition Corp. that pegs the value of Nauticus Robotics at $561 million. The transaction is expected to close in the first half of 2022.
Challenges: "Just the obvious daily ones that come with scaling a global company," says Radford. "The industry by definition is global, and as a consequence, it takes a different view and a different model. My customer is not exactly in my backyard -- my first customers are in Norway."
"There are intrinsic challenges when you're a newcomer," he adds. "This industry is filled with some very strong players, great companies that have been at this a long time. I have a deep respect for what they've done, and I've studied them for a long time, so it's exciting to come into that market and present a different way of doing something."
Opportunities: The market is everywhere, says Radford, and in more ways than one. "The blue economy is a multi-trillion-dollar economy, and it's just spotted with several multi-billion-dollar markets all over the place."
He describes "an autonomy revolution happening across all industries in the ocean," and says Nauticus can play in all of them. "You don't have a crazy, bespoke product for every industry. The activities are very similar."
The offshore wind industry is a big target, he adds. The legacy maintenance uses "this $100,000-per-day vessel that drops this dishwasher-, refrigerator-looking hydraulic box on three miles of extension cable just to rotate a valve underwater," says Radford. "That originated in oil and gas 60 years ago. I don't think that's appropriate for these emerging renewables markets. Just because we have it doesn't mean we should use it."
Radford continues, "You're talking tens of thousands of installed turbines around the world. We don't need a vessel that spews out 70 metric tons of CO2 per day. It's a really bad photo op with a smog line behind one of these vessels and a green energy wind farm."
Looking ahead, Nauticus could clean up one of the world's dirtiest industries with electric container vessels. "One of our longer-term markets is actually autonomous shipping," says Radford. "My dream of this company is when you think of robots and intelligent machines and ocean, you think of Nauticus."
Needs: "At the core of every company is the people it's built upon, and the talent here is absolutely second to none," says Radford, citing "attracting and maintaining the same caliber of talent" as the Nauticus' top need. "We're very discerning about our hires, because we have a very high threshold for talent. We've been able to maintain that and I don't see it going down."