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Calendar >  Seatrec Moves to Vista to Advance its Ocean-Powered Robotics Technology

Seatrec Moves to Vista to Advance its Ocean-Powered Robotics Technology

By   /  July 28, 2022  /  No Comments

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While Providing Employees a Better Cost of Living

Seatrec moved to North County San Diego from Los Angeles about one year ago in search of modern space, affordable cost of living and fellow ocean-tech-minded businesses. Its new home in Vista is where it continues to develop energy harvesting and robotics technologies that help improve how much we know about the ocean, and just as importantly, how we capture the data.

As CEO and Founder Yi Chao, Ph.D., explains, currently, there are no laws that prohibit scientific littering in the ocean of exhausted equipment – including that with lithium-ion batteries – after experiments end or when equipment fails. His company is extending the life of aquatic drones and providing new ways of capturing data that will increase our knowledge of ocean topography, among other things.

“Billions of dollars’ worth of equipment is sitting on the seafloor as trash,” said Chao, “and Seatrec’s unique contribution to ocean robotics is our energy harvesting technology that makes ocean exploration more sustainable and cost effective. Our goal is to develop low-cost robots with different types of sensors that can map the environment.”

Seatrec’s underwater drones are powered by natural changes in ocean temperatures, which means there is an endless supply of power. Chao initially invented this technology at California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but after spinning off into its own company in Los Angeles, Chao was looking for a new location further south to be closer to his supply chain and provide a more balanced quality of life for his employees.

“We knew we wanted to move to San Diego, and North County had the modern manufacturing and laboratory space we needed,” said Chao of his research to find Seatrec’s San Diego home. “We need high ceilings, big doors and newer spaces, and I was only really seeing that in North County.”

Chao continued that in addition to room for Seatrec’s equipment, which includes a two-story water tank, he began focusing on North County after comparing cost of living and housing data with the objective of supporting his employees’ ability to live nearby their office and reduce commute times – a big perk after battling LA traffic.

“North County had the cost of living that our younger engineers could afford, and we’ve also been able to find new employees here. Not long after our move, we hired four engineers from recent grads to mid-career,” said Chao. “Everyone lives 10-20 minutes from our office. We went from having people running late to meetings because traffic was so bad, to surfing at lunch. Everyone is happier.”

Seatrec’s team of engineers is working to develop robotic technologies that can support different types of sensors, depending on client needs, and ultimately, the company’s vision is to create an ocean-powered energy station that can be used by different companies that are performing their own research. “It will be like an energy charging station in the middle of the ocean,” said Chao.

Chao explained that it is expensive and unrealistic to continually recharge battery powered robots in the open ocean, and there is a need for using robots to accurately map the contours of the ocean floor.  “Ocean mapping is the first step to managing the ocean responsibly,” said Chao. “It’s the first layer that lets us know if a hill is actually the size of a mountain, a house or a shopping mall.”

Chao notes that only 20% of the seafloor has been mapped to date, and the other 80% is extrapolated from satellite data. “We can’t see through the ocean, so ocean satellite data can only get us detail at thousands meters resolution. For comparison, when we landed a rover on Mars, we had maps that were meters resolution. We know more about Mars and the Moon than we do about our ocean right now, but we can change that.”

With Seatrec’s robotic and energy harvesting technologies the tides can change to allow for more complete and detailed data of our oceans. One of its new expeditions, “Project NEMO” is set to map the most remote corner of the ocean, Point Nemo, that is 1,670 miles from the nearest land.

“Our robots can capture data points about salinity, temperatures, noise and other factors. We need to collect better data, so we can understand the ocean. And then protect it,” said Chao.

One application of Seatrec’s technology is to detect underwater earthquakes through audio mapping, and Seatrec has received funding from the Department of Defense to improve the quality and quantity of sounds recorded in the ocean to help naval navigation. “Soundwaves are very important data that can tell you a lot about what’s happening in the ocean,” said Chao. “For the navy, especially submarines, having an accurate map of the seafloor is critical, and with a more expansive sound library, we can determine what type of ships and marine life are in the area to protect vessels and animals. During COVID, a lot of shipping activity went quiet, so we could hear a lot more of the animal patterns.”

In addition to slower shipping traffic, COVID also impacted Seatrec’s supply chain, like many other companies. “It affected everyone – households and companies,” said Chao. “We still have POs that we cannot complete because we cannot get the components we need. We are a small company, so it’s not ideal to have inventory sitting on our shelves. That was part of why we decided to move to San Diego, as well, to be closer to our supply chain. Plus, San Diego is more ocean-tech minded. We have Scripps and the Navy right here, as well as other small businesses trying to solve ocean challenges.”

For more information about Seatrec, please visit its website at seatrec.com. If you are interested in moving your business to Vista, please contact Director of Economic Development Larry Vaupel at lvaupel@ci.vista.ca.us or visit the City of Vista’s Economic Development website.

Larry Vaupel Economic Development Director email

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