Entrepreneurs looking to raise venture capital for disruptive and innovative ideas should be buoyed by the following fundraising news.

Liquid Robotics, a 120-employee developer of autonomous ocean robots and aquatic data services, raised $45 million in a Round E led by Riverwood Capital along with existing investors VantagePoint Capital Partners, et al. The firm raised $22 million from oil services giant Schlumberger, et al. in 2011. 

The robots rely on photovoltaics, lithium-ion batteries, wave power, and energy-stingy computing, sensors, and communications to stay at sea and travel thousands of nautical miles on their missions.

We spoke with CEO Bill Vass this week.

"Our customers are anyone on the planet who does anything in, on, around, or over the ocean," said Vass, who then rattled off a litany of applications for the autonomous craft:

  • Offshore oil, gas, and mining
  • Fiber-optic cabling
  • Shipping ports
  • Defense
  • Drug interdiction
  • Fisheries
  • Weather
  • Water quality management 
  • Surveyors

"If you use things that float or fly over the ocean -- then you are our customer for collecting data."

Vass said that the big innovation was in harnessing wave and solar and "solving the energy problem." That has allowed Liquid Robotics to set the world record for an autonomous craft in its 9,442-mile voyage from California to Australia. There's a lithium-ion battery on board to store the energy from two 52-watt solar panels, although the CEO said that there would eventually be two kilowatts of PV on board.

Liquid drops the robots off about a mile from shore and lets them swim to their destination. “It takes 122 days to cross the Pacific,” he added. “[The device] takes the up-and-down motion of the waves and coverts it into thrust.”

"This platform can do things you never though of doing," said the CEO, adding, "Any ocean data collection or survey -- we can do it better or cheaper than any other platform out there." All of the processing is done "in-situ rather than sending all the data back." The craft can be "no-touch for a year."

The robots can be multi-tenancy, allowing customers to share the platform.

Vass said that the robots "operate in all sea states -- from doldrums to hurricanes." He called it an "amazingly hard technical challenge" with a craft that makes its own decisions and generates all its own energy without breaking down while coping with water, corrosion, biofouling, and epic G-forces.  

During one voyage to Alaska, the robots endured 22-foot high waves and survived. The robot has also survived a shark attack. Here's some background on one of the firm's projects involving tracking Great White Sharks and some other case studies involving fisheries and monitoring sea ice.

The craft has its visible sensors and PV on the top of the unit along with essentially a 20-foot keel that "allows us to survive hurricanes," said Vass. Liquid Robotics has logged 300,000 nautical fleet miles in every ocean. The longest mission was 25,000 miles. 

The company has a joint venture with Schlumberger to help explore for oil in pre-site surveying and has seen "big growth internationally" in countries with lots of shoreline to defend. The startup has a project in Loch Ness -- although the client is not looking for Nessie.

“It will cost you $30,000 to $70,000 a day plus fuel to keep a ship at sea,” said Vass, a Sun Microsystems alum, in an earlier interview. “You can send one of these things out to the middle of the Pacific for two-and-a-half years.”

Alan Salzman, Managing Director of Liquid Robotics-investor VantagePoint, said, "Liquid Robotics is, in many ways, the poster child for a new era of cleantech companies. The firm combines a clean-energy source, wave power, with big data and cloud computing to provide critical monitoring and surveillance of an important natural resource, the oceans of the world. The Liquid Robotics team is a who’s-who of veteran IT executives, world-class explorers, innovative thinkers and robotics pioneers, all focused on collecting vital data for a variety of private companies, government agencies and research organizations. It’s an extremely exciting company -- one that is truly revolutionizing how we analyze, interact with and care for three-quarters of our planet. We think the opportunities are profound.”