Ocean Observing Prize Competitors Ride the Winning Wave

Aug. 9, 2022 | By Brittany Enos and Laura Carter | Contact media relations

Oceans cover 71% of the planet, but much of these watery worlds remain unexplored. To help fill oceanographic data gaps, the Department of Energy's (DOE’s) Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO) and the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS®) program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched the Powering the Blue Economy™: Ocean Observing Prize to investigate new ocean observing technologies that are powered by marine renewable energy. Such devices have the potential to gather more robust, extensive, and accurate data on Earth’s oceans, weather, and atmosphere.

People in hard hats stand behind protective railing, looking down into a pit where a device is lowered by crane into water.
The Wave Powered Oceanographic Gliders team tests their early-stage prototype at the Naval Surface Warfare Center's wave tank facility in Carderock, Maryland. Photo by NREL

Recently, competing teams concluded the BUILD Contest by testing their marine-energy-powered ocean observing prototypes in a state-of-the-art wave tank. Now, DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) are eager to celebrate three winners of the BUILD Contest, who shared a cash prize pool of $500,000. Maiden Wave Energy LLC’s Rover won the top prize of $275,000 after the wave tank test.

In June, Ocean Observing Prize competitors arrived at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Carderock, Maryland, to evaluate their prototypes in the U.S. Navy’s indoor ocean (also known as the Maneuvering and Seakeeping Basin). The basin holds over 12 million gallons of freshwater and measures 240 feet wide by 360 feet long (slightly smaller than two side-by-side American football fields). The tank can simulate all kinds of wave conditions, helping reveal the capabilities of new wave-powered technologies, including the novel hurricane-monitoring prototypes that Ocean Observing Prize competitors are developing.

After arriving on site, teams assembled and prepared their prototypes, completing a dry and wet check to ensure the devices were safe and ready to go in the water. After each device cleared the checks, the crew placed each prototype one at a time in the test tank. Each prototype weathered a variety of wave conditions and had the opportunity to demonstrate its capabilities through a data-collecting maneuvering mission and a wave-powered recharging session.

In recognition of their prototypes’ potential to one day power ocean observing technologies, the awarded teams were:

  • Maiden Wave Energy LLC’s Rover (Aberdeen, Maryland), who won $275,000
  • Wave Powered Oceanographic Gliders, a partnership between Moye Consultants LLC and Wave Venture (Tallahassee, Florida), who were awarded $175,000
  • Kevin Lu’s EEL Drone (Los Angeles, California), who received $50,000.
A person crouches over a device on wheels.
The EEL Drone team prepares their early-stage prototype for testing at the Naval Surface Warfare Center's wave tank facility in Carderock, Maryland. Photo by NREL

Experts in marine energy, undersea robotics, field operations, and hurricane science evaluated each wave-powered prototype in four categories: data, maneuverability, power, and mission compliance, which included categories like operations, safety, size, and weight.

As first-generation prototypes, all three devices attempted a challenging engineering task and ultimately achieved aspects of the evaluation criteria. During the brief, fast-paced tank testing, two of the prototypes powered themselves using energy they generated—showing that wave power has the potential to enhance the endurance and capabilities of uncrewed ocean observing platforms. While this technology is still in the early stages of development, these prototypes not only met expectations but also helped identify future research opportunities for marine-energy-powered ocean observing platforms.

“With ingenuity and determination, the Ocean Observing Prize competitors presented novel combinations of wave energy harvesting and ocean observing platforms,” said Ben Maurer, NREL’s principal investigator for the prize. “This competition is only the first step to advance developing key ocean-observing technologies.”

A device floats in a large water tank surrounded by protective railings and a walkway. On the wall behind the tank is an illuminated American Flag.
Team Maiden Wave Energy LLC's Rover tests their early-stage prototype at the Naval Surface Warfare Center's wave tank facility in Carderock, Maryland. Photo by PNNL

Teams competing in the prize have spent the last three years exploring new ways to integrate marine energy with ocean observing technologies, like weather buoys, cabled arrays, and uncrewed underwater vehicles. Marine energy-powered devices could eventually lengthen deployments at sea to provide more coverage and collect higher-resolution data that forecasters can use to more accurately predict hurricane intensity and paths.

WPTO, NOAA, PNNL, NREL, and the prize sponsors commend the competitors for their perseverance in participating in the prize and look forward to tracking the teams’ future technological and commercial advancements.

Now that the BUILD Contest is finished, the organizers are evaluating next steps in the Ocean Observing Prize and exploring how best to advance and test these early-stage prototypes.

Learn more about the BUILD Contest winners, and explore how your organization can get involved as a sponsor of water power prizes. Sign up to receive NREL’s water power newsletter or WPTO’s newsletters for more prize news delivered right to your email.