Spotlight: Sea Machines Robotics Inc.

Sea Machines Robotics Inc. was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 2014 as the brainchild of its CEO Michael G. Johnson working alongside his current right hand man, Chief Operating Officer Jim Daly. The company’s vision was to become a premier specialist firm renowned for autonomous control & navigation systems. The road to the defence premiership would recognizably require a heavy capital commitment and a solid financial foundation to stay ahead of the curve. The more pressing concern would emanate from the predatory tendencies of defence goliaths such as BAE, Fincantieri and Ferri Industries from Europe and America’s monolithic General Dynamic’s subsidiary Bath Iron Works or the colossal Huntington Ingalls Industries. The companies had been made ever more dangerous as prime movers in a growing market conflict over the advancement of unmanned naval systems. The potential for company ending buyouts in the unmanned market increased after BAE’s 2019 act of snapping up the Plymouth based Riptide Autonomous Solutions a mere 40 miles from Sea Machines Robotics Inc. HQ in Boston would no doubt be a cause of concern to the company’s survival chances. The company had obtained a secret weapon however, a pre-existing partnership formed with venture capital firms LDV Capital and NextGen Venture Partners.

The primary partner is New York based LDV Capital currently holding a joint portfolio with NextGen Venture Partners over the company. The two companies are linked in their technological focus, particularly in the realms of AI with NextGen Venture currently housing Fritz AI and Dusty Robotics. LDV Capital on the other hand has an extensive wealth of experience to aid in the guidance of new companies within the tech-sphere in addition to their impressive portfolio. The company is able to call on experts from YouTube, Eventbrite and Instagram to name but a few. The portfolio experience spreads across the AI and autonomous systems sector seeing them fund both Uizard and Fantasmo, both specialising in AI aid systems. NextGen Venture Partner’s do not disclose their start up capital range, however LDV Capital offers a range of between $350,000 – $1.2 million in start up capital for viable projects. The seed investment strategies used by companies like LDV Capital consists of putting in money in exchange for either equities or pre-specified share granting convertible bonds. The venture companies bet on the success of their portfolio to increase the value of their shares exponentially and in return make more than good on the initial spend. The gamble is risky and not every bet plays off.

The gamble taken by LDV and NextGen Venture Partner’s over their funding of Sea Machines Robotics Inc. appears to be paying off sooner than expected. 2020 has seen the company move from strength to strength in terms of contracts and integration into the wider defence sphere. The year began strong for the company with the influential Thetius website, a trusted source of maritime market intelligence naming it the number one company to watch in 2020. The prediction has proved true. 2020 has seen a remarkable series of events seeing the company expand in the European market, contract with the US Coast Guard, ally with Huntington Ingalls Industries in the North American market and be introduced to the US Department of Defence. The year has transformed a small hitherto infrequently mentioned company into one whose future is being monitored carefully in London, Trieste, Gondomar and Newport, Virginia. The extraordinary progress has been due to a series of wise commercial decisions by the top team, previously named as Micheal G. Johnson (CEO) and Jim Daly (Chief Operating Officer). The decisions principally involved the moving into business with various companies and is as much the result of successful marketing as it is at the strategic level. The company is where it is at the end of the year also one imagines in no small part thanks to Don Black, VP of sales & marketing. The brave move to expand further into Northern Europe executed on the 4th of September with the construction of an office on Denmark’s North Sea coast in the town of Esbjerg, will see Peter Holm (European Director) address new challenges as the company is likely to attempt to grab an increasingly significant piece of the European unmanned pie. An increasingly busy defence marketplace particularly in the Batlic sea region, an area starting in St. Petersburg and ending Skagerrak straits. The increased competition largely a result of Copenhagen, Riga, Vilnus and Tallin becoming increasingly important nodes in NATO’s naval strategy.

The European side of the company is that which has delivered most of the company’s success in this golden year. The first significant contract of the year came on May 17th 2020 announced through New Zealand’s Unmanned Systems Technology publishing house. The contract concerned the provision of the SM300 autonomous control system by Sea Machines Robotics to the Dutch hydrographic firm, Deep BV. The SM300 control module is the company’s breakthrough product consisting of an onboard control cabinet and a remote control system. The onboard control cabinet is to store the components allowing the machine to see, hear and feel without being manned. The sensors within the box consists of a set of GPS sensors to designate self-location combined with an Automatic Radar Plotting Aid (ARPD) broadcasting RF waves in each direction. The result is a feedback of data establishing the underwater and surface environment, the data feed then allows the unmanned vessel to see what’s around it. The vessel can only see the natural geography through the ARPD system and requires an extra system for the identification of other vessels. The SM300 allow for the creation of an other ship awareness through the use of VHF RF broadcasts from an Automatic Identification System (AIS). The VHF choice is in order to provide perfect collision avoidance. The mechanics of its optimal suitability lies in the limited range of VHF generated RF waves to 53 nautical miles and is incapable of non-LOS communication. The result is that for a vessel to be detected through the AIS it must satisfy what a human would recognize as LOS i.e. being able to identify an object through sight alone. A vessel who has LOS with another vessel is in all likelihood in range to do damage if not aware of the second party. The use of VHF as a secondary sight was therefore an excellent choice to which Sea Machines Robotics should be applauded. The system is also capable of controlling cameras distributed on the vessel to act as literal sight, feeding back imagery data to the remote operator.

The SM300 has its second component in the remote control system allowing an operator to pilot the vessel from a maximum of 1,800 miles. The feat had been proved in 2018 via communicating between a command vessel in Boston and a receiving vessel in New Orleans. The control cabinet is also capable of controlling the movements of the vessel as well as its sensory input able to manipulate hydraulic, mechanical and electrical systems. The systems in this case being cranes, winches, ROV deployments, sonar and fire pumps depending on the vessel attached. The command element broadcasts on an L-band satellite frequency communicating first with satellites and then to the unmanned vessel. The result is long distance communication capabilities provided by satellite communications. The SM300 is capable of operating two vehicles simultaneously along grid patterns and real-time processing providing POV vision to the operator. The SM200, the SM300s sister holds its differences in the joystick and controller communication capabilities. The SM200 has a dual joystick instead of a mono joystick with enhanced control capabilities such as having eleven assignable switches to control the functions of the vessel. The controller from said remote control system is unable to communicate with satellites and in the SM200 the controller is required to have LOS over a 1km range on the autonomous vehicle for it to respond to commands. The battery life on the SM200 is 8 hours. On both systems if communication is lost or an emergency button pressed all activities currently being executed with stop dead.

The SM family of systems are directly behind the company’s ability to move further into the maritime headlines. The success of the SM remote control system acting as a robotic brain for the much publicized autonomous guard vessel is what likely garnered serious attention from Huntington Ingalls Industries. Huntington Ingalls Industries by 2020 was deep into a highly lucrative Pentagon contract for participation in the Amphibious Maritime Projection Platform project (AMPP). The project had seen the company contract for both the America-class amphibious assault ships between 2014 and 2019 and the 2017 San Antonio-class landing platform. The company was looking for further opportunities to advance the project and it is likely no coincidence that on the 24th of June 2020 Huntington Ingalls Industries aided in raising part of the $15 million required for the future development of autonomous enabling systems by Sea Machines Robotics Inc. The 5th of October 2020 brought Huntington Ingalls Industries to the conclusion that the robot brain like abilities of the SM family warranted their inclusion in the (AMPP). The result was a tripartite contract between Huntington Ingalls Industries, Sea Machines Robotics Inc and FOSS Maritime, overseen by the Defence Innovation Unit (DIU). The Sea Machines Robotics Inc’s role in the contract is to aid in the development of autonomous logistics barges. The barges are likely built with Huntington Ingalls Built chassis in cooperation with FOSS Maritime and Sea Machines Robotic’s will see the insertion of the brain like SM family of remote control systems. The contract is envisioned as taking the course of many years and inevitable additional support contracts will no doubt be round the corner, the project looks like one which Sea Machines Robotics Inc. can likely grow stable revenue from for many years in the future, not to mention the reputational bonuses from a successful DIU, Pentagon overseen project.

The Sea Machines Robotics Inc. in summary is in perfect health. The new contract with the DoD will likely overrun as is usual with large scale defence contracts. The result will be the continued flow of work into Sea Machines Robotics Inc. leaving the company with a stable, enhanced revenue stream able to divert wealth from the long-term US contract to develop its presence in the European space. The company is perfectly positioned to do this with their new Danish facility. Denmark stands to be a crucial point in NATO’s Naval strategy as previously covered in IMR Instagram mini-articles. The ability to tap into this perceived vulnerability on behalf of NATO could potentially bring the company even greater profits through working with Baltic and Scandinavian partners. The company has an opportunity to come in at the beginning of a major military upgrade programme across northern Europe with Germany rearming, Denmark strengthening its navy and Estonia building up reserves of autonomous robotic firepower through companies such as MilRem. The spotlight given today to Sea Machines Robotics Inc. is not undeserved, they’ve achieved a great deal in a year and now occupy a stable position in the states and a position to come in at the beginning of something huge in Europe. If anyone is thinking of investing in defence now, an investment in Sea Machines Robotics could be just the opportunity you’re looking for.

Matthew Hall MA, Director of the International Military Review

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