A new gov tech company in Atlanta aims to sell aquatic drones to government agencies for the dual purposes of cleaning up waste and pollution as well as logging real-time water quality data.
With regulations and remote ID technology on the way, the floodgates are effectively open for government use of drones, and use cases are multiplying. In California, drones are doing public safety reconnaissance and delivering emergency supplies. North Dakota is building a statewide network for drones to handle air traffic control. In Florida, drones are performing utility inspections.
A new company in Atlanta is building a different kind of drone for a new use case — waterway cleanup and data collection.
The company is RanMarine USA, and it’s the result of a collaboration between co-founder and CEO Doug Shumway — now starting his fourth gov tech company, after previous startups FOIA Systems, SuiteOne Media and BoardSync were acquired by larger entities — and a company in the Netherlands, RanMarine Technology.
A relatively small drone company of fewer than 10 employees, according to Crunchbase, RanMarine came on Shumway’s radar when he was looking for a new gov tech project. The company had developed hardware and was in the early go-to-market stage when Shumway joined up with them, he said, drawn by the potential for two things: fast results and the addition of data collection to the basic premise of water cleanup.
“(RanMarine) started in 2016, and it’s been a three-year voyage of testing, building, repeating. They went to market in limited capacity around the middle of last year,” he said. “A lot of times I feel like smart cities projects are not successful because they’re so long, so capital intensive. I wanted a way of doing smart city initiatives cost-effectively, and being able to show the results they want.”
Nicknamed a “WasteShark,” Shumway’s drone resembles a miniature catamaran with a sieve-like basket under it. The drone measures about 3 feet by 4 feet, weighs about 150 pounds and trolls along the surface of the water scooping up litter, biomass, microplastics and other detritus, powered by a battery that lasts up to 10 hours, depending on conditions.
Shumway said the drones will be equipped with lidar to avoid collisions from up to 60 meters away, along with up to 15 customizable 4G IoT sensors for measuring factors such as temperature, pH, depth, green algae, or hydrocarbons in oil. The drones will use GPS waypoints and autonomous software to follow set pathways collecting waste and data, selected by RanMarine staff according to where currents and tide pools deposit the material. He described the drones’ capacity for autonomous operation at the Society of Automotive Engineers' level 2 out of 5, meaning the vehicle is human-supervised but can control its own steering and velocity. He expects the WasteShark will achieve level 4, near-complete autonomy, by the end of the year.
Shumway said his target customers will be city and county governments with smart city tech and some kind of water nearby, along with water districts and special districts that might need to clear out biomass like grass or duckweed from clogging turbines or other equipment. As another example, he said he’s also working with a commercial company that wants to remove pipe-clogging flowers from a retention pond.
Shumway laid out his business model with three options: (1) buy the drones as a capital purchase, and RanMarine USA will help maintain them; (2) hardware as a service, by which the customer pays an annual fee and RanMarine takes care of everything; or (3) contract with local service providers who will operate the drones.
Precedent in American markets for a water-cleaning drone is hard to come by. Shumway mentioned Mr. Trash Wheel in Baltimore, but it stays in one place and doesn’t collect water-quality data in real time. He’s banking on the uniqueness of his latest gov tech venture, and the fact that public agencies may become interested in learning about what’s in their water while cleaning it.
“We remove trash from our city parks. We remove trash from our streets,” he said. “Why don’t we remove trash from our water?”