Yuan Wang, co-founder of American Marine Research Company, details the progress of his company in an interview on June 29, 2017. (Joseph Baucumemail@example.com)
Although its initial July target for profitability proved too ambitious, American Marine Research Co., a startup based in Pensacola, is still trending upwards in its quest to rid the Gulf Coast of lionfish through drone technology.
The company announced the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission scored it among the five best bidders in an October request for proposals for funding. In the RFP, the state sought to identify applicants who could capably develop and test equipment and methodologies to control lionfish at depths exceeding 130 feet.
Out of 11 bids, American Marine Research Co. placed third, which should secure funding from the state. The startup beat out competition from larger companies such as Bermuda-based Atlantic Lionshare and C&T Marine Services in Port Saint Lucie.
“Winning the grant was huge for us,” said Yuan Wang, co-founder of American Marine Research Co. “As a fresh grad, you don’t have a lot of insight into where you stand. It’s really with opportunities like a competitive bid invitation that we get some real feedback.”
Wang, who graduated from Princeton University in May, announced the formation of American Marine Research Co. in June. He formed the company with a trio of engineering students from Northeast schools including Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The team arrived in the Florida Panhandle on June 9.
At the outset, the startup pegged the end of July as its goal for harvesting enough lionfish so the business could turn a profit by supplying them to restaurants. To capture the invasive species, the company initially proposed designing an autonomous robot so adept at neutralizing its target that out of 100 lionfish in a given area, it could pinpoint and corral 95 at the very least, while also distinguishing from other species.
But after several months of laboring on a prototype, Wang said a primary hurdle has been a sparse market for purchasing the necessary hardware.
“A lot of things just don’t exist off the shelf for marine robotics,” he said. “You have to build a lot of things yourself and get some soldering burns as a result.”
To that end, Wang said the FWC grant should help the company. He said the grant is worth $50,000. He anticipates it will help pay for parts and labor.
“It’s going to accelerate a lot of what we were doing before, and moving to a full-time capacity, (allows) us to not have to subsidize this with other work,” he said.
Since the team’s launch over the summer in Pensacola, many of its founding members have returned to the Northeast and now serve in advisory capacities. But in their place, the company hired a pair of mechanical engineering students from the University of West Florida and another mechanical engineer who has since graduated from the University of South Alabama.
Brian Arnold, one of the UWF students, said the focus remains on first proving the drone works through a remote operator. In the next few weeks, he said the company will conduct dock tests in which they will test the robot via a remote control from a dock to assess its efficiency in catching and stunning, as well as gauge its capacity and battery life.
“Hopefully, within the next two to three weeks, I see us catching our first lionfish,” he said.
In addition to capturing lionfish, the team also hopes to gather more data on the species. Lionfish have posed a threat for ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico because they largely lack predators in the region. They originated from the Indo-Pacific region but have flourished off Florida since the 1980s when aquarium collectors released them into area waters.
But with this new technology, Kiara Korkuc, another UWF engineering student, said the goal is to broaden researchers’ understanding on how lionfish operate in the region.
“We need to know more about their depth, movements and seasonal movements,” she said. “There’s not a whole lot of divers that are going out there in winter time, so no one knows what’s going on in the winter. Understanding what the lionfish do in our area is pretty important.”
Zach Pennington, who graduated from the University of South Alabama in December, said the team will work toward implementing autonomy into the drone over this year. At the moment, the robot exists as a cylindrical drone design with vectored thrust.
“We just want to get the drone frame hammered out right now,” he said. “Then we’ll work on the autonomous design.”
According to statistics maintained by the FWC, more than 40,000 lionfish were removed from Florida waters in 2017 through 23 tournaments. About 16,000 were caught via Lionfish Removal and Awareness Day tournaments across the state, which fall on the first Saturday after Mother’s Day every year.
Despite those removals, a vast number of lionfish still remain. To solve the problem, Wang conceded the task will require much effort. But with the strides American Marine Research Co. has made so far, which he said most notably includes the FWC grant, he believes the startup is on the right track.
“There’s a fine line between delusional and visionary,” Wang said. “Validation like this certainly makes us feel like we’re on the right side.”
Joseph Baucum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 850-435-8632.
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