Six Wave-Powered Prototypes to Set Sail

Ocean Observing Prize DESIGN Contest Winners Advance to BUILD Contest

March 15, 2022 | Contact media relations

A device bobs in the ocean

Ocean Observing Prize competitors are constructing tomorrow’s marine-energy-powered devices today. Photo from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Six teams of marine energy innovators are angling to free their ocean-observing technologies from their tethers and set sail to test their recharging abilities.

The multistage Powering the Blue Economy: Ocean Observing Prize challenges competitors to integrate marine renewable energy into ocean observation platforms. The end goal? To devise tomorrow’s hurricane-monitoring devices and protect coastal communities from dangerous storms by revolutionizing the United States’ ability to understand, map, and monitor the ocean.

A joint effort of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Integrated Ocean Observing System, the Ocean Observing Prize is administered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Sink or Swim

Six teams emerged victorious from the Ocean Observing Prize DESIGN Contest and advanced to the BUILD Contest.

Over the course of a year, BUILD Contest competitors have been preparing to test their prototypes in the nation’s largest wave tank at the U.S. Navy’s Maneuvering and Seakeeping Basin in Carderock, Md., in the summer of 2022.

From designs inspired by aquatic animals and mythical sea creatures to gliders, underwater vehicles, and platforms, the ocean observing tech is evolving from sketch to in the flesh thanks to the hard work of these six teams.

Let’s dive a bit deeper and learn more about the BUILD Contest teams and their designs that include:

  • Kevin Lu’s EEL Drone, or Electrically Engage UnduLating system, from the Pyro-E team, which harvests energy by mimicking the movement of eels. The device not only collects energy from waves and currents, but it also gathers data on ocean conditions as it looks for signs of hurricanes. The team hopes to expand the drone’s ability to collect ocean data by improving the device’s battery usage and its self-sufficiency.
  • Platypus Prowler, a brainstorm from Mark Supal’s team, which is an unmanned, underwater vehicle that carries a wave energy converter in its belly. The Platypus Prowler travels horizontally through the water as it collects data and monitors conditions for potential hurricanes. When it is time to recharge, the device tips upward and surfaces to spread out its arms and absorb energy from the waves.
  • Thaumas, from Alan Eustace’s team, which takes inspiration from the wondrous sea god in Greek mythology. Designed to support lengthy journeys, Thaumas leverages cutting-edge technology to harvest energy from waves to power the onboard sensors that collect ocean data. The device’s software allows it to communicate with other vehicles and satellites while analyzing real-time data.
  • Maiden Wave Energy, LLC’s Maiden Wave Energy Rover, which sits atop the water and bobs in the waves to harvest energy. The wave-powered rover is self-propelled, unmanned, and carries a deployable instrument that measures the ocean’s conductivity, temperature, and depth. Designed with the rugged ocean environment in mind, the device can withstand the toughest of sea conditions.
  • Submitted by the Tallahassee, Fla., team of the same name, the Wave Powered Oceanographic Glider is an autonomous underwater glider that employs the surge motion of waves to generate electricity and access, collect, and transmit unique ocean data. Boosted by a propeller that enables easy gliding and faster travel, the device can comfortably sail through the ocean without consuming large quantities of energy.
  • Autonomous Marine Power System, an at-sea ocean observing platform called Persistence that is one part buoy and one part anchor. Developed by the ReVision team, the tethered two-part system harvests energy generated by the relative motion between the two bodies as they are each rocked by waves. This energy is converted into electricity, which powers Persistence’s propulsion, control, and sensing subsystems.

Prototype Prep

Competitors are not facing the run-up to the tank test alone.

To help the Water Power Technologies Office and NOAA ensure that competitors have the support they need, the  BUILD Contest deadline was recently extended to June 2022 and each of the six teams were awarded additional funds. Sponsoring organizations are also providing teams with mentorship and training to refine their designs and finalize their prototypes. For example:

  • The New England Ocean Cluster is leveraging their network of blue economy professionals to mentor teams and help publicize the prize
  • Blue tech startup SeaAhead is hosting training sessions to competing teams and supporting outreach for the prize to cultivate the Ocean Observing Prize community
  • Marine tech company DSA Ocean provided teams with a six-month license for their dynamic analysis software, ProteusDS, alongside training opportunities
  • CDL Oceans is offering business-oriented mentorship to help competitors develop their scale-up strategies and bring their innovations to market.

Making a SPLASH

Up to five winning BUILD Contest teams will share a prize pool of $500,000 and have the opportunity to take their devices from the test tank to the open sea in the final stage in the competition, the SPLASH Contest.

Hosted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the SPLASH Contest is scheduled to take place in the Olympic Peninsula off the coast of Washington state in the spring of 2023.

For this stage, teams will refine their prototypes before evaluating the endurance and performance of their systems at sea under real-world conditions.

As many as three grand prize winners of the SPLASH Contest will share a total prize pool of up to $1.5 million.

May these intrepid teams have fair winds and following seas as they dive in.

Cheer on the Ocean Observing Prize competitors as they make waves. Learn more about NREL’s water power research and subscribe to NREL's water power newsletter.