San Diego, California
Industry: Industrial & Equipment
Products: Autonomous marine vessels
CEO Eric Patten is making waves with the upstart robotics company's unmanned marine vessels.
Partnered with Lockheed Martin, Teledyne Technologies, and the U.S. Department of Defense, Ocean Aero is manufacturing autonomous watercraft that could fill a need for a variety of marine industries.
Patten is a retired Navy officer who is leading his crew of engineers and fabricators into new territory. "Robotics and autonomous systems are going bigger," he says. "In the late 1990s and 2000s, unmanned aerial vehicles came into their own, and 9/11 a watershed moment for the UAV world. In 2001 we saw explosion for unmanned aerial vehicles. Today you can go to Costco and buy a drone."
During the company's startup stage, friends and family funded the first design of its Submaran vessel. "By 2014, our design and idea had garnered the attention of Teledyne," says Patten. "They started with the first investment and continue to support us today. Teledyne really helped us early on, proving not only investment dollars but also a facility, administrative assistance, human resources, et cetera. They're a big reason why we've been successful."
In 2015, Lockheed Martin signed on as another strategic partner. "We were lucky to attract strategic partners first and are now looking for financial investors to help us move to another level," says Patten.
Patten sees marine unmanned vehicles as the new frontier. "We're in the maritime world and it's truly a green field," he says. "We are augmenting and strengthening work that people do in areas such as research and defense. When I was in the Navy, I didn't spend more than 30 days out at sea at a time. With robotics, you can collect data for much longer periods."
To further extend the capabilities of the self-powered Submaran, the company implemented innovative and patented technologies. "Extending the range and working under harsh weather conditions was a challenge, but we came up with some innovative solutions," says Patten. "We use solar and wind to extend the range and when the weather gets bad, the vessel can submerge."
The ideas led Ocean Aero to win the 28th Annual Most Innovative Product Award from San Diego startup accelerator CONNECT. "The Submaran is basically like a Transformer," says Patten. "Our intellectual property is in how one builds a boat with a thruster system and the software on making it completely autonomous. It's very complex."
While the Submaran made its mark in the robotics industry, the company is looking to move to the next level and manufacture more products, but wants to keep its sources intact. "We mostly use our own off-the-shelf stuff, but we're always looking at using U.S. companies as our suppliers to source our materials first, especially if they're here in San Diego," says Patten. "There are some things, however, you just can't buy in the U.S. For example, we use a keel bulb that is made out of lead which we get from Mexico. We use solar panels from Germany as they are the best, and these are flexible, very thin solar panels that we require."
Challenges: A tight workforce in a booming economy poses a big challenge, says Patten. "Labor market jobs have taken off and we just lost an electrical engineer to another company, it is getting more difficult to compete for employees in this booming economy. We try to recruit talented young people, but the labor pool is tough here in San Diego, especially for engineers."
Opportunities: "Right now, we're focused on business development inside the U.S.," says Patten. "Eventually we will become an international company and sell overseas. We have strong support inside places like the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security, and others who really like what we're doing. Nobody does what we do so there is more attention coming from the investment community. We're poised to prove ourselves into other emerging markets."
Needs: Talent to scale manufacturing. "We are turning the corner from our R&D phase to a production company," says Patten. "We need multi-fold logistics, business development, engineers, and everything that goes with scaling up to that."