Company Insight

Charting the Course for the Satellites of the Sea

TowHaul Corporation is the leading manufacturer of off-road lowboys specifically designed for the open-pit mining industry

Robert Dane, Founder and CEO

On the Sydney campus of the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Ocius seamlessly merges dedicated R&D with world class advanced manufacturing to produce the world’s best renewable energy powered persistent Uncrewed Surface Vessels (USVs) - essentially marine drones.  

Their flagship class is the Bluebottle, a 6.8m (22 foot) vessel that uses solar, wind, and wave energy to spend months at sea, hundreds of miles from shore, carrying multiple sensors and payloads, teaming with other Bluebottles and crewed assets, creating an intriguing proposition for multiple applications.  

Robert Dane, Founder and CEO

Guiding this innovation is Robert Dane, Founder and CEO, whose passion for sailing and the environment led to the inception of Ocius. We recently had a conversation with Robert, talking all things Ocius, Bluebottle, defence, upcoming exhibitions, and their imminent expansion into the USA.

How many blue bottles do you have in the fleet, and what sort of operations are they on?

We've built 15 Bluebottles so far, with a contract underway for two more by May. They all have jobs in 2024 doing monitoring and surveillance, communications, bathymetry, and oceanography. You can either hire us essentially as a service, or you can purchase the vessels - we have a flexible business model. 

Commercial customers like us to do everything. So, we prepare, deliver and launch the Bluebottle, it sails out to the mission area and does whatever mission for however many days they want, and then it’ll sail back, and we recover it.  
In the case of Navy, they own them, but we operate them and we're training their staff so at any point we can hand over 100% control.

TowHaul machine. Credit: Shuterstock

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Frank Smith, Founder and CEO of TowHaul

As part of Operation Resolute, Bluebottles BLUEY and BRIZO were tasked by the seventh rotation of Army's Regional Force Surveillance Group (RFSG) to provide surveillance and reconnaissance of remote islands off the northwest Australian coast. They transited 350NM from Broome, then sailed almost 720NM around the archipelago for 10 days, providing reconnaissance of potential beach landings, avenues of approach, and surveillance of the waters and other vehicles in the vicinity, and then sailed the 350NM home.

The Bluebottle is designed in Australia, is it manufactured there too?

Bluebottles are 100 percent Australian designed, built, operated and owned. Our naval architects, One2three in Pyrmont are champion sailors and the team that ‘chops up’ Wild Oats every year to make it go faster and faster. For any readers who don't know what Wild Oats is, it's the boat that has won the Sydney to Hobart yacht race a record breaking 9 times. We’ve got great boat builders just North of us who deliver our beautiful hulls on trailers to our facilities at UNSW. We then install the electrical cabinets, computers and mechatronics gear, which we build here from a 95% Australian supply chain.

The Bluebottle generates power with sails, solar, and wave energy, which are all existing technologies. Given how advantageous it is to send an autonomous vehicle to sea for months at a time, why do you think a vehicle like this wasn't created before?

It's a good question. Other USVs use just solar, or solar plus wind, or solar plus wave, but we use all three forms of renewable energy available at sea.  

As sailors, we've been fanatical about combining all three in a seaworthy way and as a lucky byproduct, Bluebottles can do things we never considered. 

Because our sail folds down, we can approach things without being seen. Because it folds down in a way it doesn’t take up cargo space, we can carry large payloads.  

The wave flipper provides propulsion, but it also acts as a ‘sea anchor’ pointing the bow into the seas in bad weather.  

I’ve heard you say that Australia’s adversaries can throw a lot more money and people power at their problems, while Australia overcomes its problems with a qualitative overmatch. What do you mean by ‘qualitative overmatch’?

Countries and bigger companies can throw money and people at a problem, but it often doesn’t give an elegant solution. Like a lot of SMEs, with not much cash, we’ve had to make intuitive leaps rather than do every step along the way. You think of the end result and ask, “How do we get there?”. You make a bunch of prototypes that fail, but you get to the end result quickly by testing things and seeing what breaks.  

You know the saying ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’. We had to do things here with normal cars and trailers, so from day one we designed Bluebottles with launch and recovery in mind. So, we don’t need a crane or a ship, logistically we can operate from remote locations. All we need is a boat ramp! 

So that's what I mean by qualitative overmatch. You've got to be better with less money. This is why we collaborate heavily with UNSW, as a small amount of money for a researcher can go a long way. 

The Royal Australian Navy welcoming its fifth and final Bluebottle uncrewed surface vessel during a meeting of manufacturer staff, Navy personnel, and Assistant Minister for Defence Matt Thistlethwaite.

Where is Ocius on the path to the ‘Forever’ Bluebottle that can just head out to sea indefinitely?

The two ends of the spectrum are anti-fouling and Artificial Intelligence (AI). 

Anti-fouling - there are a lot of clever people working on nanotechnology and ‘biomimetic’ (why don’t fish foul?) paints, and we're doing a study on high density plastic (HDPE) with a Tasmanian Company.  

With AI, there is so much to say about Bluebottle’s individual and teaming behaviours, and the vast amounts of data we’re logging. This is why we’re at the UNSW. We can’t hire people who’ve been out for 5 years, we need new graduates who understand AI. 

What are your ambitions for the next few years, and for the future of Ocius?

Immediate priorities are Australia and New Zealand and making sure we deliver here. We are also working with Thales doing ‘multi-static’ Antisubmarine Warfare and L3Harris, doing ‘gateway’ communications.  
Excitingly, in April, we'll be at Sea-Air-Space in Washington and preparing two Bluebottles with US partners for trials at Xponential off San Diego 22 - 25 April. 

Long term under AUKUS, we see opportunities to sell Bluebottles to US Primes who can incorporate their own payloads and sell that capability to their customers, while we continue the development, build, maintenance, training, updates and upgrades. 

Ocius is growing quickly and preparing to scale their fleet throughout Australia and the USA. Reach out to the team to bolster your capabilities with a platform not found anywhere else in the world. 

TowHaul machine. Credit: Shuterstock

Contact information

Ocius Technologies Limited 

Buildings R13/14
UNSW Randwick Campus
22 King St, Randwick NSW 2031 

Phone: +61 2 9924 6400