FarSounder featured in The Triton

Real forward-facing sonar exists

In 1992, assuming all was clear ahead, the captain of the QE II plowed across Buzzards Bay at over 20 knots. There was plenty of water everywhere else under the grand old ship, except over the unseen rock that caused about $13.2 million in damage.

On Aug. 13, M/Y Land's End sank off Corsica two days after hitting "a plateau of rocks" lying 2 to 5 meters below the surface. This hazard also happens to be surrounded by deep water; so presumably, while some forward part of LAND'S END screeched on solid rock, her depth sounder was still blissfully reading "60 feet."

In the Gulf of Mexico, mariners worry about submerged bits of partially dismantled oil rigs and the 10,000 containers that fall off ships every year that are likely hovering just under the surface.

Not surprising then that sales of forward-looking sonar are brisk. Unfortunately, not all so-called forward-looking sonars are created equal. Many don't see very far ahead and most can show only a partial, two-dimensional picture. Others waste vital minutes while the vessel sails on blindly, assembling a sort-of 3-D picture using multiple pings.

Nuclear submarines can see ahead in 3-D under the ice but they need several highly trained sonar technicians to interpret what they see.

The technology to provide a clear picture, in real time and in three dimensions of what's under water, just up ahead hasn't been available - until now.

Enter FarSounder's forward-looking sonar.

To say that FarSounder is revolutionary wouldn't be trite; in fact, it may actually be an understatement. In June, it won first place for technology in the International Superyacht Technology and Innovation Awards (ISTIA) sponsored by The Yacht Report.

Unlike most other marine technology converted from military requirements, FarSounder has a civilian pedigree. Still, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Navy are interested.

"We are at the beginning of our technology," FarSounder CEO Cheryl Zimmerman said. "Our FS-3 and FS-3DT are the only sonars capable of generating a 3-D image ahead of the vessel with a single ping at navigationally significant distances."

The company calls it a "black box" solution, but the secret is in the software. FarSounder has no moving parts and uses off-the-shelf components, which add about 35 pounds to a vessel's displacement. It is also mounted flush, creating no additional drag.

Half of FarSounder's installations are in refit. The fact that Lurssen, DML and a Dutch yard are said to be installing them in new builds doesn't mean FarSounder applications are only for the nautical toys of the super rich or even just for navigation for that matter. Clipper Cruises has installed FarSounder in two of its ships with expedition cruising in mind.

"More vessels are going where charts are based on surveys done two centuries ago," said John Edwards, president with Sea-Image Corp. and a FarSounder dealer. "That explains why interest is high from expedition yachts and cruise ships."

On barges, FarSounder can be temporarily mounted on a pole and communicate wirelessly to the master of a tug or towboat hundreds of feet aft.

Even Greenpeace should be happy. FarSounder operates at frequencies well above the hearing of the great whales, another obstacle at which FarSounder is particularly adept at locating, before they become impaled on blind bows of surface vessels.

Still, all is not rosy for FarSounder.

"One of our marketing challenges is product differentiation," Zimmerman said. "When speaking of the capabilities of forward-looking collision avoidance sonar, it's important to be comparing apples and apples."

In the case of FarSounder, which costs upward of $70,000, product differentiation is even more important because some competing products - actually derivations of fish finders - call themselves "forward looking" but cost much less.

FarSounder says it is different because it uses "fixed frame of reference image stabilization techniques," which is "technology being commercialized as a human user interactive forward-looking navigational tool for surface ships."

"Most systems are based on a series of 1-D or 2-D pings which are then sewn together for a 2-D or 3-D image over time," said Matthew Zimmerman, FarSounder's vice president of engineering and Cheryl Zimmerman's son. "And because of their scanning techniques and beam resolutions, in shallow water, these other sonars can operate only at short ranges."

What does that mean? Edwards applies his so-what index to answer.

"It won't let you hit a rock when the boss is late for the dinner reservations ashore," he said. "Bottom line, it uniquely makes a 3-D image - with range, bearing and depth - every two seconds."

Some of Far Sounder's competitors take a two-dimensional vertical "slice" of underwater information to tell a captain something's out there. But is that something a two-foot diameter piling that can be steered around, or a wall? By generating only a single "slice" on a single bearing, competitors cannot provide depth information on either side of a ship, which begs the question, "Which way do you turn to avoid it?"

It is possible to rotate 2-D sonar through 90 degrees, taking a horizontal slice of data. But competitor sonars can't tell the difference between the bottom, the surface and the rock/wall.

Then there's the question of range. How far forward can they see?

For an idea of how far a captain needs to see, consider how far a yacht cruising at 15 knots travels: 1,520 feet. Some "forward-looking" sonars are limited to four water depths. FarSounder's product can see beyond 11 depths.

FarSounder, www.farsounder.com, is a young, private company run by some technical people: the mother-son team of Cheryl and Matthew Zimmerman and James Miller, a professor of ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island.

Miller actually began work on the concept in 1989, spurred on by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. When Matthew Zimmerman was a student in the 1990s, he began working with Miller to further develop the software to make the technology work.

In addition to being the company's president and CEO, Cheryl Zimmerman is charged with bringing FarSounder to market. She has 20 years experience as an entrepreneur.

The trio founded the company in 2001 in Providence, R.I. By outsourcing, they've managed to keep FarSounder small - so far. Rising demand for their product may change all that.

FarSounder is limited only by the speed of the device processing the data it collects. Water passing over the transducer does not affect performance, so speeds above 20 knots are feasible in the future.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has asked FarSounder to help watch for dubious divers, something the minders of high-profile megayacht owners are finding interesting as well.

Bransom Bean is a yachting industry business consultant and ocean sailor. He was a regular officer and watch stander in the U.S. Navy, qualified in submarines. Contact him through editorial@the-triton.com.