Are underwater drones the next big business frontier ?
It seems that almost everyone is looking for a smarter, faster and cheaper way to do things these days.
Robots, or more particularly, aerial drones, represent an irresistible and abundant opportunity for the technically minded to achieve these goals for us.
But what of underwater drones ?
In the same way that aerial drones have given us a unique perspective from the air, underwater drones are capable of opening up a new frontier below the waterline that has kept us guessing for centuries.
The unmanned aerial drone market increased from US$2.9b in 2005 to US$7b in 2015 and is expected to increase to an impressive US$21b by 2022 according to Markets and Markets.
The industry leader in low cost aerial drones, DJI, recorded a staggering US$1.5b in sales in 2016.
According to recently ASX listed underwater drone manufacturer, Aquabotix, the underwater drone market is expected to lag the aerial drone market by just 7 years.
If this is true, then Aquabotix, with their interesting stable of high endurance underwater robotic drones are worth a second look.
The company listed on the ASX on the 28th of April 2017 and is now the only standalone, ASX listed outfit in the underwater robotics / underwater drone space.
They have developed 3 different types of underwater drones and an underwater camera that captures and beams high quality 1080p HD colour video and still images to the surface.
All are suitable for a massive array of uses in a plethora of different industries.
Aquabotix’ drones are essentially cylinder shaped, mini, unmanned submarines, equipped with a range of different sensors, lights, cameras and propellers. They are capable of recording or beaming vision back to a surface based controller in real time via a very long tethering cable.
In the underwater drone market, Aquabotix are a little unique given that their “Hybrid” drone is the only one to-date that can either beam vision in real time via the tethering cable or record vision on board whilst operating autonomously without the tether.
The Hybrid can be told to undertake a certain course over great distances and will record its journey on board. The user can then re-attach the tether cable and control it directly whilst narrowing in on a target area identified by the initial mission.
The company has recently launched an innovative cloud based platform that will allow a user to access vision from their drones from anywhere in the world via a lap top or Ipad
Aquabotix are also looking to create a cheaper consumer model that can be used by boaties and fishermen to answer that perennial question about where the fish really are.
For now though, the company has been concentrating on the mid level commercial markets and with some success.
To-date they have sold their underwater drones to an interesting array of clients who are using them for an even more interesting array of tasks.
Aquabotix list of current clients include the United States Navy, the United States Coast Guard, the United States Department of Homeland Security, BP, Shell, Pittsburgh Tank, The Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the University of Notre Dame, Broadspectrum Ltd and ConEdison.
In the ever increasing sea of Aquabotix client names however, one looms large and that is NASA.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab has placed an order for an underwater drone from Aquabotix for their “Underwater Oceans” project.
The monetising opportunities for Aquabotix’ underwater drones are potentially vast with everyone from the recreational boatie to the large oil and gas platform having a requirement to see underwater.
Aquaculture farms can keep an eye on their stock using them and search and rescue teams can also put them to good use.
Military outfits can use them to protect their marine assets and surf life savers can use them to detect sharks.
Ports can use them to set up security perimeters and sub sea pipeline owners can inspect their infrastructure at will by using them.
In fact the unmanned underwater vehicles market, which is estimated at US$2.69b in 2017, is projected to reach US$5.2b by 2022, growing at 14% per annum between 2017 and 2022, according to Markets and Markets.
The user operated market is expected to have a compounded annual growth rate of of 20% whilst the automated or autonomous market is expected to grow by 32%.
Aquabotix now has distributors in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Ireland, India, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Brazil.
The big players seem to be muscling into the underwater drone market too.
In 2016 Boeing acquired Liquid Robotics, manufacturer of a wave and solar-powered autonomous robot, reportedly for a consideration in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Other high value mergers and acquisitions in the industry have also occurred in recent years.
Aquabotix look to be reasonably early movers in the market and say they have shipped units to over 45 different countries to-date.
Patersons Securities, who instigated research coverage on Aquabotix earlier this year are bullish about the ASX listed junior’s prospects.
Patersons are predicting a jump in EBITDA from a small loss this year to $0.5m, $3.0m and then $6.6m in 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively.
Interestingly, Patersons are predicting 70% gross profit margins for Aquabotix. Margins like that are almost better than coffee but unlike the coffee business, there are still significant barriers to entry that exist in this as yet untamed new business frontier.