Although there are many of them, the drifter buoys that move along with ocean currents are not as sophisticated as more expensive government-deployed sensors, such as the network of buoys of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
However, the company provides an example of what the private sector is increasingly capable of doing on land, sea, air and in space: namely, gathering data, processing it and selling it to paying customers, as well as providing it to government agencies.
The next NOAA leader will need to think through how the National Weather Service and other agencies take advantage of private-sector firms operating everywhere from low Earth orbit to underwater to obtain the most reliable data possible, potentially at a lower cost than in the past. NOAA is already working with private-sector satellite companies to help improve the accuracy of its weather forecast models.
Sofar Ocean is rooted in “the premise that ocean data is inherently valuable,” CEO Tim Janssen said in an interview. “Clearly from an environmental perspective that’s the case.”
“If we can show that we can actually help industries perform better, save them money by collecting more ocean data, that means that the paradigm of ocean sensing is going to change fundamentally,” Janssen said.
Each Sofar Ocean drifter buoy provides real-time wave, wind, temperature and ocean current information, and can be deployed by hand from a ship.
Janssen said that if the company’s network, which now covers the Pacific Ocean, expands over the entire planet, the data collected will support improved weather forecasts that help ship captains determine whether to reroute their vessels around stormy seas. And it will also aid research that may be useful for climate scientists studying how the oceans are responding to global warming.
One current customer of the Sofar platform, which provides real-time data from the instrument network and information from an in-house computer model, is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which invests in next-generation technology that could have applications that benefit the military. The World Meteorological Organization is also incorporating Sofar Ocean’s data, along with about 70 universities.
The company resulted from the 2019 merger of OpenROV, an underwater dronemaker, and Spoondrift, which makes the Spotter. The merger to create one firm led to a Series A funding round totaling $7 million from Peter Rive, co-founder of Solar City and a cousin of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, as well as from Craft Ventures and True Ventures.
“Large-scale distributed sensor networks revolutionized digitization on land and in space. Now we bring it to the world’s oceans,” Janssen, who has a background in physical oceanography, said in a news release.
Sofar Ocean isn’t alone in the low-coast ocean observing space. Perhaps the closest competitor is Saildrone, which also has a weather forecasting component, including an app, and is used by government researchers for climate studies in hard-to-reach areas. Scientists have used it to gather data near polar ice sheets, for example. Saildrone is backed by the Schmidt Family Foundation and Social Capital, among others. While Saildrone is widely known, Janssen says Sofar is further along in developing products for the shipping sector and many other use cases, and will have a bigger network of observing platforms.
Leveraging its own data, Sofar has developed a ship-routing service that incorporates changes in sea conditions and is working with Berge Bulk and other shipping companies to help them reduce fuel use, which cuts their greenhouse gas emissions and could prevent them from spilling cargo containers into the sea during major storms.
“Route optimization is an important part of Berge Bulk’s road to carbon neutrality by 2025,” said James Marshall, CEO of Berge Bulk, in a news release. “We have seen fantastic fuel savings through improved weather routing and working with new weather data technology is helping us fine tune this even further.”
The company is also helping to monitor coral reefs around the world through a platform known as Aqualink. The platform can identify areas vulnerable to coral bleaching, which occurs when reefs encounter heat stress from unusually mild waters.