From UAVs to USVs, the big tech chase goes on

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By Li Wen fang and Chai Hua in Zhuhai

Editor’s note: Innovators have never ceased in their relentless pursuit of tech prowess. A Chinese mainland startup has made a big leap into the fledgling unmanned surface vessels market — an industry that’s set to immensely benefit scientific and marine research, and projected to hit new highs worldwide by 2021.

From UAVs to USVs, the big tech chase goes on


Zhang Yunfei grew up as an avid fan of ship models, and has taken that passion to a grand new stage.

Seven years on after embarking on his entrepreneurial journey by launching a startup in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, his company boasts commanding a 90-percent share of the nascent market for unmanned surface vessels (USVs) — a business that promises to go a long way in revolutionizing scientific and marine research.

“I was wondering if I could make these models stronger and more intelligent so that they could be used for commercial purposes,” says Zhang, recalling it was this thought that had driven him onto the road of entrepreneurship.

He said the USV business is a brand new technology field that’s only studied and applied in the United States and Israel for military use. “We didn’t have that many examples to learn from and had to explore everything ourselves.

We tried to replace human labor with robotic technology to do dangerous and dull work in hostile environments.

Zhang Yunfei, founder of Oceanalpha

Zhang had picked the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology as his starting point, enrolling there for a master’s degree in 2007. It was in a lab at the university that he and a few classmates created the first USV prototype for monitoring the water environment.

“We tried to replace human labor with robotic technology to do dangerous and dull work in hostile environments,” explains the 33-year-old entrepreneur.

Like drones, unmanned boats can sail autonomously based on GPS radio navigation, and users only need to control them with a portable control station from the shore. Live video displays of the boat’s view and sample information are also available.

He says the technology can raise work efficiency substantially, cut a person’s full-day labor to about one hour, and improve the accuracy of measurements by taking water samples from more spots and levels.

For example, in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, the local authorities have to monitor 50 lakes each year for their temperatures, conductivity, pH values and levels of dissolved oxygen and turbidity. Traditionally, the work would take three months using a manned vessel sailing to each lake, but USV technology has helped them to get the job done in two weeks.

Addressing disquiet in certain sectors that USVs could eventually throw some people out of work, Zhang offers this consolation: “Our product just helps blue-collar workers to become white-collar workers.” A worker, he says, can learn how to use such a vessel after some brief training.

In 2010, Zhang and his partners set up Oceanalpha in Zhuhai, a coastal city on the western bank of the Pearl River. But, it had not been plain sailing in the early stages.
They plowed a lot of time and capital into technology development and, after nearly three years, Zhang could not even afford to pay his staff anymore.

Like many startups in their infancy, the company just managed to scrape through with government funding. The turning point came in late 2013 when the founders of Oceanalpha walked away with top honors, taking the championship in the China Innovation and Entrepreneurship Competition. The feat drew an investment of tens of millions of yuan, enabling the company to sell its first boat.

So far, more than 300 USVs produced by Oceanalpha are in service on the Chinese mainland and in more than 10 foreign countries.

What’s worth noting is that the company also owns about 27.1 percent of global USV-related patents and is leading the compilation of industry technology standards in China.

In Hong Kong, Oceanalpha has teamed up with the Water Supplies Department in providing automatic water sampling and monitoring services at Plover Cove Reservoir.

For the future, Zhang aims to further develop his childhood interest from a company into an industry, as the startup plans to build a 32,000-squre-meter technology center in Zhuhai for developing and testing USV-related technologies, as well as incubating new startups. The center is expected to be launched next year.

According to global research company Markets .the USV market is booming, and is estimated to reach US$861.37 million by 2021 worldwide with an annual growth rate of 14.51 percent.

The report said the growth can be attributed to the rising demand for maritime security, protection of shallow waters and ports, and the need for ocean data and mapping.

Luo Xuye, director of the National Ocean Technology Center, said unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and USVs will become major tools to be used for investigating and observing the ocean environment, as well as managing and protecting the ocean in future.

“The industry has started relatively late in our country, and the technology gap between ours and some other nations is still huge. But, we’ve been developing it rapidly in recent years,” he said.