From Singapore to the Gulf Coast: BeeX Takes the Plunge with Autonomous Underwater Vehicles
All the way from Singapore, BeeX gave a resounding “yes” when they were offered a slot in the Gulf Blue Navigator program. Co-founders Grace Chia and Goh Eng Wei are a young and ambitious team with the skills to match.
A spin-out from the University of Singapore, BeeX already ran several pilots of their autonomous underwater vehicles in Europe. The Gulf of Mexico was intriguing enough to entice them to make the 23-hour (one way) flight multiple times.
The Gulf of Mexico is no stranger to the critical offshore infrastructure that BeeX maps. With a long history in the oil and gas sector, Gulfport, Mississippi is a logical landing place for the Singapore technology. In addition, BOEM (Bureau of Energy Management) recently announced two large offshore wind leases in the Gulf. Grace and her team are in the process of developing and shipping a system to the United States for a long-term stay in Gulfport.
Singapore has a rich culture of blue technology development and innovation, but as Grace acknowledges, the market gets very small very fast. That's why Grace applied to the Gulf Blue Navigator program despite the long travel days. Now, with the University of Southern Mississippi's Roger F. Wicker Center for Ocean Enterprise as a center of excellence in uncrewed systems, BeeX has found a new home on the Gulf Coast.
The BeeX Team
SeaAhead: What is BeeX’s origin story?
Grace: I co-founded BeeX while still an undergraduate, as a research project aimed at building autonomous underwater vehicles for competitions organized by the US Office of Naval Research. At the time, self-driving cars were not yet available, and they wanted to push the boundaries of technology.
After graduation, my teammates and I went to work in the corporate world, selling underwater vehicles controlled by humans and sensor payloads. During those five years, I realized that autonomous vehicles had a huge potential to significantly reduce the costs and complexity of acquiring underwater data.
However, I also noticed that the market was not ready to embrace this technology, especially coming from traditional corporate incumbents, because it disrupted their profitability. So, we decided to spin off the technology from the university and bring it to the market to create impact with our autonomous underwater vehicles.
SeaAhead: What is the AI KANBILIS? Can you describe its capabilities in a nutshell?
Grace: The BeeX vehicle is a hovering autonomous underwater vehicle, which can be compared to a self-driving car for underwater use. Its purpose is to capture important information about underwater and marine infrastructure. The vehicle has a learning brain that allows it to learn about its environment and create datasets that can provide cost-efficient analysis of underwater structures to asset owners. This method is more cost-effective and less operationally complex than traditional approaches.
The BeeX vehicle can be used in various industries that involve underwater assets, such as marine vessels that transport goods, coastal protection, aquaculture, internet cables, and energy sources. However, we’re currently most focused on the renewable sector, where there is a dense infrastructure of offshore wind and floating solar farms.
SeaAhead: What made you apply for the Gulf Blue Navigator program?
Grace: We wanted to explore the US market and be in a location where we could access strong resources, a good supply chain, and customers who are coming to a central point. We found that the Gulf Blue Navigator program can provide all these benefits, including investment and support. That's why we decided to apply for the program.
During the program, we also came to realize that the offshore wind development in the US is quite geographically dispersed. There are different focus areas and needs across the country. For example, the Gulf Coast has different operating conditions compared to other parts of the country. To succeed, BeeX needs to work with different customers to understand how our solution can fill the gap in their specific operating conditions. This requires us to validate the hardware in the actual environment itself.
SeaAhead: How is BeeX furthering net-zero climate goals?
Grace: Large vessels emit a lot of CO2 during transportation from the port to the infrastructure site. Deploying an autonomous electric vehicle can reduce carbon emissions by over 90%. Because we don't need to rely on any existing infrastructure, we don't need to use a support vessel just to do our work. Our goal is to help reduce the carbon footprint of our customers by not increasing the resources they need to use. We believe that achieving net-zero is not just about creating something new that is electric, but it's about doing more with less.
SeaAhead: What do you hope to accomplish in the next 5 years?
Grace: BeeX is currently piloting on one wind farm. Once the technology has been proven, developers’ concerns about operational effectiveness can be eased. We plan to be on five more farms this year, and to expand to 200 by 2027. We aim to protect infrastructure and welcome new industry entrants.
SeaAhead: What role does BeeX play in safeguarding human life while performing underwater tasks?
Grace: One important factor for us is the ability to protect human life by using vehicles to perform risky tasks. Although humans are very intelligent and flexible, younger generations may not want to put their lives in danger anymore. However, we still need to ensure that these tasks are done correctly and that the experience from the past is passed on to new generations so that they know how to do the job. We don't want to end up in a situation where we build all these new things, and they constantly fail.
Infrastructure, defense of coastal areas, and other related tasks are critical to our daily lives. Although the human factor is still involved, we may be behind a computer screen instead of underwater. This shift is allowing us to broaden the opportunities for work in this field and make it more accessible to those who previously did not have the experience or resources to participate.