ST Company ProfileBluefin Robotics: 15 Years of Developing Subsea Vehicles
Specializing in subsea robotics, Bluefin Robotics Corp. (Quincy, Massachusetts) provides AUVs and related technologies to the global maritime marketplace. Bluefin offers research and development capabilities, technology integration, full-scale manufacturing facilities, test and evaluation infrastructure, and customer support functions from training and marine operations to logistics and full life-cycle support.
Bluefin works with clients within the defense, commercial and scientific sectors to bring practical and robust solutions to challenging underwater environments. Over the past 15 years, Bluefin vehicles have contributed to the development of subsea energy fields, the discovery of new ocean processes and the protection of global waterways.
During the 1990s, engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AUV Laboratory recognized that their work had significant commercial potential. They set out to transition their innovations to a product line that would support a viable business in a yet-untapped market, and in 1997, Bluefin Robotics was founded with the objective of developing the technologies required to produce and sell AUVs. This newly formed company was soon awarded several contracts sponsored by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, through which Bluefin developed some of its core vehicles.
Bluefin’s success attracted the interest of the Battelle Memorial Institute (Columbus, Ohio) in 2005. Shortly thereafter, Bluefin was acquired by Battelle and began operations as a wholly owned subsidiary, giving Bluefin the agility of a small business and the stability of a multibillion-dollar organization. In the years since, Bluefin and Battelle have collaborated on a variety of programs.
In 2010, Bluefin consolidated its headquarters and operations into a renovated 55,000-square-foot facility in Quincy at the Fore River Shipyard. This waterfront facility with direct ocean access houses three floors of engineering, manufacturing, marine operations and corporate administrative functions. Bluefin designs, builds and tests its systems all at this location, which has been designed to implement a lean manufacturing philosophy, as well as optimize flexibility and scalability to accommodate new platforms and expanded production lines. It includes a production-capable machine shop, a hydrostatic pressure testing room, a tank test area and an environmentally controlled molding room.
Bluefin’s facilities also include a private 110-foot dock, where the company moors its RV Resolution, a 58-foot workboat catamaran. The vessel enables verification of at-sea performance of Bluefin vehicles during the development stage and in post-production. Bluefin’s marine operations team, with decades of experience, provides feedback for product improvements to the engineering and manufacturing teams.
Since moving, the company has increased headcount by nearly 40 percent. As a result, Bluefin has expanded its skill set across the subsea industry and has matured its processes, receiving ISO 9001:2008 certification in December 2011. These efforts support Bluefin’s objective to use standardized vehicle components and subassemblies that enable a flexible product line for configuring customized system solutions in a variety of applications.
AUVs and Hybrid ROVs
Bluefin has delivered a range of systems that operate in the open ocean and in constrained waterways for extended periods of time. Bluefin’s core AUV product line comprises the Bluefin-9, Bluefin-12 and Bluefin-21, which all have a free-flooded architecture and a torpedo-shaped body. Bluefin also offers the Hovering AUV (HAUV) and the Bluefin Spray Glider, a deep-diving buoyancy-driven AUV.
The Bluefin-9 is a lightweight, two-man-portable AUV with a mission turnaround time of less than 15 minutes. Equipped with a side scan sonar and camera, the Bluefin-9 provides the performance of much larger AUVs in a convenient and rapidly deployable package. Typical applications for the Bluefin-9 include rapid environmental assessment and unexploded ordnance detection.
The Bluefin-12 is a modular AUV, with the ability to carry multiple payloads simultaneously. The Bluefin-12S, rated to 200 meters depth, has an inertial measurement unit-based navigation system, which yields high-quality data without the added expense of an inertial navigation system (INS). The Bluefin-12D, which has a 1,500-meter depth rating, offers a greater energy capacity and INS-based navigation. Typical applications for the Bluefin-12 include archeology, exploration and seafloor survey.
The largest in this vehicle series is the Bluefin-21, an air-shippable AUV with a high energy capacity that enables extended operations at even greater depths. This vehicle is rated to 4,500 meters, and able to execute surveys with demanding requirements typically addressed by larger, more cumbersome platforms. Its small size and ability to be launched and recovered from a simple A-frame or docking head allows it to take advantage of ships of opportunity. Typical applications for the Bluefin-21 include mine countermeasures and offshore survey.
The HAUV, different in form factor and function from other Bluefin vehicles, is a two-man-portable hovering AUV designed for ship hull inspection. Equipped with a high-resolution imaging sonar, the vehicle surveys ship hulls and other structures with no prior knowledge of the hull or structure. While surveys are executed autonomously, the operator can take manual control to further observe features of interest. Typical applications for the HAUV include port and harbor security.
Bluefin further expanded its product line in 2011 through the acquisition of the assets of Hawkes Remotes Inc. (Point Richmond, California), including the company’s line of ROVs designed for the subsea survey and the oil and gas industries. Bluefin is adding hybrid capabilities to the Hawkes ROVs and plans to offer these new systems in addition to its existing products. The Hawkes ROVs have range and depth capabilities beyond ROVs of similar size and can be launched from any ship. The ROVs have an onboard tether management system and onboard lithium-polymer batteries to minimize logistics requirements.
One of the most critical needs that Bluefin encountered early on in its 15-year history was the lack of an effective subsea energy solution. Bluefin has addressed this by designing, testing and fielding different battery technologies.
With more than a decade of experience in subsea battery development, Bluefin now offers commercial-off-the-shelf 1.5-kilowatt-hour subsea pressure-tolerant batteries, which are integrated into most of Bluefin’s vehicle products.
In addition, Bluefin offers custom power solutions for underwater applications such as profilers, subsea equipment, ROVs and other submersible platforms.
Recent and Ongoing Projects
Bluefin is working on research and development efforts as well as programs of record for the U.S. Navy. In 2011, Bluefin was selected, as part of the General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems (Fairfax, Virginia) team, to develop and manufacture a specialized Bluefin-21 AUV, named Knifefish, for the Surface Mine Countermeasure UUV program for the U.S. Navy. Knifefish will be part of the littoral combat ship mine warfare mission package to provide mine-hunting capabilities in high-clutter environments.
Bluefin is also working on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Deep Sea Operations program as part of the Applied Physical Sciences Corp. (Groton, Connecticut) team. This program is designed to reverse the asymmetric advantage of the diesel-electric submarine threat through the development of advanced standoff sensing from unmanned systems. Bluefin is designing an AUV that incorporates a sonar developed by Applied Physical Sciences Corp., allowing it to operate as a very deep-ocean sonar node capable of detecting submarines across a wide field of view.
Bluefin is also under subcontract to Ultra Electronics Ocean Systems (Braintree, Massachusetts) to develop components of a 3-inch-diameter, expendable device under the Naval Sea Systems Command Acoustic Device Countermeasure MK5 program. The acoustic device countermeasure can be employed as a static or mobile device.
At the other end of the size spectrum, Bluefin is collaborating with The Columbia Group (Washington, D.C.) and Battelle to develop the next-generation large submersible vehicle. Named Proteus, the vehicle is 5 feet in diameter, 25 feet long and weighs 8,200 pounds. It is capable of operating in either unmanned or manned mode. For this vehicle, Bluefin is supplying mission-planning capabilities and the power solution, as well as autonomy and navigation for use in unmanned missions.
Beyond new vehicle development, Bluefin recently participated in the search for Amelia Earhart’s lost Lockheed Electra plane. The expedition was led by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR, (Wilmington, Delaware) in the summer of 2012 to explore the waters around Nikumaroro, a remote island in the South Pacific, to look for signs of aircraft debris. TIGHAR contracted Phoenix International Holdings Inc. (Largo, Maryland) to provide their Bluefin-21 AUV to search the designated area, and Bluefin marine operations personnel accompanied the expedition to support vehicle operations.
The area turned out to be much more challenging than initially anticipated, with previously unmapped search areas having slopes of up to 45 degrees and jagged coral cliffs jutting out vertically; yet the AUV successfully completed a search of more than 1.2 square miles to a maximum depth of more than 4,000 feet.
Bluefin Robotics has developed subsea robotic technologies for more than 15 years and continues its heritage in engineering solutions to subsea challenges. Having started off focusing primarily on the development of naval systems, Bluefin products are designed for ease of use in rugged environments, a quality that has also found appeal in the commercial marketplace.
Today, the company’s growth into various market sectors has helped cement Bluefin’s position as a leading commercial AUV manufacturer, as well as an engineered solutions provider.