Richmond’s robot army looks to fight climate change in the ocean

By Aubrey Weaver | Community News Service

You might wonder what an ocean robotics company is doing in quaint, landlocked Richmond.

Despite the perceived impracticality, Greensea Systems Inc. has been operating from Richmond for the past 16 years and is only expanding.

The company builds computer systems for unmanned marine vehicles — “underwater robots,” said CEO Ben Kinnaman, who founded the company in 2006.

Kinnaman isn’t from around here — his southern drawl is a dead giveaway — but he and his wife, Joanna, have been in Richmond since the company began. They moved from the beltway area around Washington, D.C., drawn by the lifestyle opportunities in Vermont. They have a family now, and Kinnaman said they plan to stick around for the long haul.

Operating so far from the ocean has its downsides for the business.

“Vermont doesn’t have the strongest subsea robotics industry,” he said.

But some constraints have less to do with the location and more to do with the “shallower pool of resources” for robotics training in the area, he said.

The software and robotics engineered at Greensea have been used for many underwater tasks, but one of the most interesting is detecting and disposing of dormant, unexploded ocean mines. Traditionally, finding and safely getting rid of those forgotten mines often requires manned missions that are difficult, costly and even dangerous. The practices have “changed very little since World War II,” said Kinnaman.

“We’re still to this day putting divers in boats — little rubber boats — going out on the ocean to about where that other robot said that it found something that may or may not be a mine, having the divers go overboard, swim around until they find this thing and identify it,” he said, calling that process out of date and deadly.

So his company engineered a solution that could save lives.

“We provide a … software package that automates the process of looking for a threat in a suspected area of the ocean, identifying that threat and even neutralizing that threat,” he said. “All the while, the operators and the supervisors are all the way back on the beach, high and dry, safe and sound. And not in a little rubber boat anchored above a big mine that’s designed to sink, you know, a 1,000-foot-long carrier ship.”

About 70 percent of Greensea’s business is done with the defense industry, he said.

“We support 14 militaries worldwide in special operations and explosive ordnance disposal,” said Kinnaman. “So we are a very heavy defense company. But we also have a pretty strong commercial player as well.”

Greensea could develop plenty of software, but it wouldn’t be much use without robotics systems to use it. Kinnaman worried about the difficulty posed in finding partners that fit the company’s niche, he said. So he and his team made their own.

In 2017, Kinnaman started a break-off company called Armach Robotics, also headquartered in Richmond, which builds robots focused on cleaning up ships to reduce their carbon emissions. When microorganisms, plants, algae or small animals accumulate on the surfaces of boats, it takes more fuel to power them forward, putting more emissions into the air.

The concept is called biofouling, or biological fouling, in the industry, and Armach is one of the few companies focused on “proactive cleaning” as a way to combat it.

According to a report this year — by two U.N. agencies and a multi-nation environmental fund — a layer of slime as thin as half a millimeter on part of a hull’s surface can raise greenhouse gas emissions from a boat by 25 percent. A light layer of barnacles on an average-length container ship could boost the vessel’s greenhouse gas emissions by up to 60 percent, the report says, and the numbers only continue to go up.

Armach wants to combat that through the use of software-driven robots that can navigate accurately once adhered to a ship.

“It truly has the potential of leaving the ocean in a better state than we inherited, and that’s really exciting,” said Kinnaman. “That’s inspiring.”

As with unexploded mine detection, ship cleaning is typically done by people. But moving to robotics like those developed by Armach is not necessarily going to put anyone out of work, said Kinnaman.

“We use autonomy all the time. We use robots all the time,” he said. “The concept of robots is that they still require a supervisor. You are creating jobs. Because now we have to build the robots. We have to program the robots. We have to service the robots.”

Don’t expect those robots to take over the world themselves. Kinnaman reassures folks that they only have the cognition range of a 5-year-old. He finds it humbling.

Not all his work centers on disarming bombs and scraping barnacles though. Kinnaman has twice worked with famed director James Cameron to survey the shipwreck of the Titanic, the star of one of the director’s biggest hits.

When asked if he thought Jack could fit on the floating debris with Rose at the famous close of the movie, Kinnaman laughed and admitted he hasn’t actually seen the movie, but he’s seen the actual wreckage up close, and to this reporter, that’s enough.

The Community News Service is part of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program at the University of Vermont.

Image courtesy of Public domain

3 thoughts on “Richmond’s robot army looks to fight climate change in the ocean

  1. A machine like that would be great for placing bombs on ship hulls, or subsea pipelines.
    Call it “dual-use technology”, empasize the enviromental aspect.
    A robot can not have “the cognition range of a 5-year old”. It’s a machine.
    As my 7th grade science teacher said eons ago, “no matter how sophisticated computers ever become, they will never have the intelligence of a carrot”.
    Machines do not think. They respond to their programs and sensors.
    Of course that’s true of a lot of people too!

  2. Too funny. I’ll betcha’ this guy is a total Lib/Dem (climate change applications)….but he created some interesting things. So here’s a Lib who likely makes the vast majority of his income….from the Dem despised “Military Industrial Complex”. . Any contract for things you sell to Dept of Defense are infltated prices. DOD doesn’t care about lowest bid…money is no object. if you have a needed product, the D.O.D. will pay whatever you ask…if it creates a solution. This guy should have stayed quiet and not let it out what he really does for evil $ profits….just a matter of time till the “Tie-Dyed-Birkenstock Crowd” will be protesting his doorstep as a greedy war monger 🙂

  3. Interesting conflict of missions – 14 worldwide military contracts? Meaning foreign funding by what countries? NATO? Militaries with tanks, aircraft, ships, nuclear weapons, missles, military bases, military ports, etc. Then the mention of the U.N. climate agenda which is the WEF, WHO, WMF globalist control agenda. I don’t fault the man for his enterprise. The counfounding part is the rise of the climate conscientious capitalists (Boston Dynamics, etc) who have their bread buttered from both sides. They tend to speak out both sides of their mouths while profiting from both sides of the fence – which is actually just one side – a globalist control agenda, the money machine which is not about humanity whatsoever.

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