blueye underwater drone

Blueye’s Christine Spiten thinks underwater drones will save our oceans

Blueye Robotics co-founder Christine Spiten loves the oceans. She lives on a boat, she’s traveled by boat across the Atlantic ocean, and she even is a 2007 Norwegian Champion in Sailing. Naturally, she’s behind a new underwater drone with the intent to explore the ocean.

The Norway-based robotics company Blueye today launched a drone called ‘The Pioneer’, which can go up to 150 meters down (that’s 8x the depth an average scuba diver can go).

I chatted with the company’s co-founder, 27-year-old Christine Spiten, to find out what the drone is all about.

Christine holds a M.Sc in Industrial Economics and Technology Management from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and Robotics from UFRJ in Rio, Brazil. She was also named one of Norway’s 50 most important female tech founders 2017.

The Blueye Pioneer underwater drone.

Drone Girl: Most of us think of a flying robot when we hear the word drone, but it applies to underwater robots too sometimes! How is the Pioneer different or similar to what we’re used to?

Christine Spiten:  The underwater drone is much like an aerial drone. You control it from your own smart device — tablet smartphone or computer. It’s like flying an aerial drone — but I think it’s even easier to ‘fly.’

The biggest difference between an underwater and an aerial drone is you get to see a part of the world that you’ve never been able to see before. You become a real explorer.

DG: What kind of background led you to the underwater drone industry?

CS: I had an internship for an oil company back in 2012, while I was still a student. We did a project on environmental monitoring subsea. We used huge, traditional ROVs (remotely operated underwater vehicles). They were complex and clunky. I was thinking about how other electronics are more available for regular consumers. Why isn’t there a smart version of these ROVs to allow regular people to become explorers?

Then I took robotics classes. I made my own underwater drone out of a kit. I implemented sensors to use it for my masters thesis on environmental monitoring. And it grew from there.

DG: And you have tons of experience beyond just that.

CS: I took a course called industrial technology management when I was getting my Masters in Engineering at the Norweigan University of Life Sciences. And I studied at the UFRJ in Rio, Brazil, where I took courses in underwater robotics. I also studied International Entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley.

Christine Spiten blueye underwater drone pioneer
Christine Spiten

DG: So where do you live now?

CS: I’m actually based on a sailboat. My boat is my home! It’s close to Blueye’s office, which is in Trondheim by the fjord. It’s convenient because we can drop the drones into the water and do a lot of testing and demos from there.

DG: Wow, you live on a boat! That’s awesome. I imagine the Blueye Pioneer has been tons of cool places too. What is the coolest dive the drone has been to?

CS: The Pioneer went all the way north, near the North Pole, to Svalbard. A group of students who were there to learn about underwater robotics and arctic research launched it from the ice. They had to make a hole in the thick ice and thrust the drone into the water. The water was ice cold, but crystal clear. It was just amazing seeing their pictures –  surrounded by glaciers and mountains covered in ice.

DG: It sounds like you really love the ocean.

The Pioneer drone streams to your mobile device to provide a live feed of what it sees underwater.

CS: When I’m working on Blueye, I’m spending as much time as I can by the ocean. We always have to explore and increase global knowledge of the ocean in order to take care of it. That starts by seeing it. We need that knowledge to take care of the ocean.

DG: What’s the hardest thing about building an underwater drone?

CS:  The hardest is the hardware. Building a hardware product always comes with certifications, distributions, and logistics.

Now that it’s built, the most challenging part is to stay focused because we are launching a product and we know our target market and what we’re aiming for. We have decided where to launch, what to launch. Along the way, we’ll need people to see the use-cases for the product.

DG: What are some of those use-cases?

CS: The first prototype was used when we sailed from Senegal in Africa to Brazil. We sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to investigate the connection between marine litter and people’s health

We used the first prototype of the Blueye to map marine litter around shipwrecks, and we found LOTS of trash. That was the first milestone when developing the product, because it not only proved that having an eye below the surface can serve as useful to scientists, but it’s useful in showing all people that not only is the ocean beautiful, but it is also fragile and vulnerable.

DG: It seems like making underwater photography more accessible like this could change the way people think about the environment.

CS: Yes, the ocean is our biggest climate regulatory. It’s crucial for transport, energy, for all sorts of resources including food and medicine — not to mention the ecosystem and all the species living there. There is so much that we don’t know but we need to know in order to take care of ourselves and the planet.

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