Ever since my time at DJI, I’ve been obsessed with drones, mapping, information collection, and data analysis. I came Saildrone a while back, so it was an absolute pleasure watching Sebastian de Halleux (Saildrone COO) be interviewed by Josh Wolfe (Lux Capital).
If you want a recap of Season 1, check out this tweetstorm.
*Any transcription mistakes should be attributed to me.
Josh: Hey everyone, I’m Josh Wolfe, Managing Partner and Co-founder of Lux Capital, a firm that invests in emerging science and technology ventures at the outer most edges of what’s possible. We’re back with season two of our new web series Futura, where you’ll be meeting the rebels of science and invention. We’re turning Sci-fi, into Sci-fact. This season we’re taking you inside with the futuristic founders and inventors who are bringing their cutting-edge ideas to life.
I’m here with Sebastian de Halleux, the COO of Saildrone. No longer science fiction, they have a robotic fleet of daring drones on ocean missions at the extreme edges of the globe.
So we’ve got drones in space, we’ve got drones in the sky, we have drones on the ground, but we’ve never really had drones at the ocean. And you are changing all of that. Tell us about the origins of Saildrone.
Sebastian: It was born in [in desert] out of research in high-performance aerodynamics to break the land speed record in the land yacht. The real invention that came from that effort was a propulsion method that uses wind, but reuses only three watts of electricity to control a very powerful wind propulsion system. That was then adapted to a marine vehicle, and the Saildrone was born.
Josh: So you’ve got the physical frame, which is an innovation itself, but what about all the technology inside?
Sebastian: Inside you really have the innovation that has been made possible by miniaturization. So you know, high performance IMU, GPS, satellite modems, and the satellite constellation itself that enables the data extraction from all those vehicles in real time back to the cloud. So many things had to come together to make the Saildrone possible, which is an effort that would have been inconceivable even ten years ago.
Josh: Now when we first invested there was, I think, one vessel. How many are now out at sea?
Sebastian: The goal of the company, as you know, is to try to quantify the entire planet. And so the ocean is 360 million square kilometres. So we divide this in small domains: six by six degrees. And if you do this, you get a thousand such domains. And so, our goal has always been trying to build a thousand, you know, vehicles. And so right now, we have a hundred active Saildrones.
Josh: You also set a record. I mean, you guys were the first to produce autonomous navigation around the Arctic Circle.
Sebastian: That’s right. So in the Arctic — we’ve been going there for five years — we have been further north than any unmanned vehicle. 76 degrees North, which is really really high up. And these oceans have never been sailed since the dawn of humanity because it had never been ice-free.
But something I’m even more proud of is the circumnavigation of Antarctica. So it’s hard to believe, but it’s only 120 years ago that humans first overwintered in Antarctica — in a sailing boat, actually. Half the crew died. It was, you know, just the early days of exploration. And we were the first robotics company to sail around Antarctica unassisted. 196 days from New Zealand to New Zealand. Now think about this. This is the Southern Ocean, you know, where 60-foot waves happen every other day, where the vehicles get rolled. We had a collision with an iceberg.
Josh: And have there been any crazy encounters?
Sebastian: We have had episode of seals taking rides on Saildrones up in the High Arctic avoiding orcas that are chasing them. Collisions with eight mile long icebergs in big storms in the ocean.
Josh: Seals have used Saildrones as refuge?
Sebastian: That’s right. We joke it’s like the Uber for the Arctic.
Josh: Now, at Lux we love rebel scientists and rebel founders who are trying to break some rules. In some way they look at the system they find a way to hack it. What are some of the rules at Saildrone that you had to throw out?
Sebastian: Well if you’d walk into any of our meeting rooms, you know, you’d smile because we talk a lot about the high seas, which is where we operate, you know, which is beyond any national jurisdiction. This is the land of parrots, you know, and this is pretty much where the Saildrone fleet operates.
So we’d [normally] break many rules, but very few rules exist where we operate, which is a frontier that’s just, you know, on our doorstep here.
Josh: Truly, Jules Verne would be inspired.
Sebastian: Absolutely. I think he would be proud.
Josh: So you go from the desert to the ocean. And the vessels go from small to large. Tell me, from the current state of the fleet of the Saildrones today, what can we expect in the future?
Sebastian: The original idea was this network of a thousand, you know, Saildrones — 23 feet in length. But for some jobs, you just, these are not gonna cut it. You have some sensors which are just too power hungry or too big to be carried by those vehicles. So for that, we are about to release something called the Saildrone Surveyor. Imagine a 72-foot robot with a 60-foot tall sail that can cruise at 10 knots with peak speed of 20 knots and carry one and a half ton of a equipment.
Josh: If there’s one spot that you personally could spend all of your time in the world on the ocean, where in the world would that be?
Sebastian: So you know, this is how I first came into Saildrone. I love the ocean. It’s on our doorstep. I’ve worked in technology, so the ocean is my refuge. And I’ve been to Hawaii a few times, but I’ve never taken a plane. I always sail from San Francisco to Hawaii. It’s just fascinating, because you can look at it, but understanding it is a whole other, sort of, realm. And the questions about the oceans have never changed. But the technology that we use to address those questions is evolving so rapidly that we’re finding new answers.
Josh: If there were three big questions, three big answers, that you would be proud in a decade hence, Saildrone has solved or answered, what would they be? As they relate to the ocean.
Sebastian: Better understanding of the ocean resources like fish and fish [stock]. Being able to sustainably manage fisheries that feed 20% of the world population. That would be one.
The second one is improving weather forecasts and extending it over time to give people a better grip around what’s going to happen in the future of the planet.
And the third one, and that’s the big one, is understanding the carbon cycle and the heat cycle which is currently rapidly changing. It’s going to be key to our survival.
So understanding what’s happening, and how we can hopefully use the ocean as a solution to our own future would really be an amazing legacy.
Josh: It’s very inspiring against a backdrop of so much dystopian tales of the climate and the earth, to see the engineering and forward-thinking future that you are building to help solve the crisis.
Sebastian: There’s pretty much, you know, no part of the economy that’s not touched by the weather, which is the short-term manifestation of the state of the planet, or by climate, which is its long-term analogue. Right? We talk about an Arctic ice-free ocean within our lifetime. We talk about extreme weather disrupting companies in creating billion-dollar, you know, damage events, you know, ten times more frequently than ten years ago. So, how do we understand a fast-changing world? We need more data, and stimulation of data into models that can predict what’s going to happen in the future.
Josh: The people that you are hiring at Saildrone. Are they oceanographers, are they computer scientists, are they engineers? What are the talents and the disciplines that you’re starting to see and that you’re recruiting from?
Sebastian: So you know, we are truly a full-stack company. Literally, it starts with the mechanical engineers and composite technicians and system designers, electronics engineer, all the way up to machine learning in AI experts, as well as oceanographers. People come from the best companies in the world and in the Valley.
Josh: Well I think the scale of the mission has attracted extraordinary people, and we’re very proud to be part of it.
Sebastian: Great, Josh.
Josh: That’s it from us today. I want to thank the rebel inventors at Saildrone for giving us a sneak peek of the future. If you want to get in touch with us, reach out to us at Futura@lux.vc. We’d love to hear your crazy ideas and inspirations.