The New York Times reported this week that, due to rising ocean temperatures, the Northern California coast experienced a sudden surge of purple urchins — a pest that devoured 93 percent of the coastline’s kelp forest. Similar urchin outbreaks are occurring all over the world, from California to Maine to Australia.
Why does this matter?
Kelp forests are the foundation of the world’s fisheries. They provide up to 70 percent of the planet’s oxygen, as well as mitigate the intensity of incoming storms. Due to global climate change and overfishing, urchins are now disrupting the balance of underwater ecosystems and destroying the kelp forests, turning them into spaces barren of all plant and animal life.
This unbalance of the underwater food system trickles down — or rather, up — causing coastal economies to suffer. The lobster and abalone market, for example, is worth $150 million worldwide.
The best current solution is to send human divers down to remove or harvest the urchins for food. However, humans aren’t able to stay at these deeper depths, between 50 feet to 120 feet, for long, and risk decompression sickness.
High school friends Dennis Yancey, Ph.D and Dr. Arthur “Trey” McClung, Ph.D reunited while obtaining their engineering degrees at Stanford. During that time, they came across the kelp deforestation problem while reviewing a project for the Department of Energy.
The co-founders created Marauder Robotics as a solution at the intersection of technology and science. Drawing from McClung’s background in animal-mimicking robotics, the team started working on a prototype autonomous vehicle that can operate underwater for longer periods of time and identify targets — like urchins — for collection.
The pair was accepted into Georgia Tech’s Flashpoint Cohort 8 earlier this year and conducted an extensive customer discovery with scientists working on a related paper for the National Academy of Science. “From South Africa, Chile, Japan and Alaska, the problem is well documented, the public just doesn’t know,” says Yancey.
The customer discovery led the team to sign on three different pilots, with one in Australia kicking off this December. The autonomous robot, which can dive down to a maximum of 120 feet and is approximately the size of a large dog, has computer vision to identify the different types of urchins. The pilot will help them validate their navigation assumptions and how to facilitate interactions with the urchins.
Once collected, the team will distribute the urchins through appropriate channels for use in food, animal feed or construction materials. “We’re looking at ways to recycle the entire organism for food and materials,” says Yancey. Red urchins, for example, can be found at sushi restaurants as the delicacy called uni.
Their clients include state governments and countries that want to contract Marauder Robotics to help them bring balance back to their coasts. The team currently has two revenue models in the works, one project-based and the other one based on collecting data during their dives.
The team recently signed a master research agreement with Georgia Tech and brought on robotics engineer professor Michael West to the team. They will be ramping up fundraising in early 2019 as they’re looking for a $5 million round to fund product development and deployment for the next three years.
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