Featured Company – FarSounder

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On midnight on March 24, 1989 the United States suffered the second worst oil spill in U.S. History. That was when the Exxon Valdez hit ground while navigating through very shallow waters. In addition to the Exxon Valdez and more local oil spills and cruise ship groundings, there was an epidemic of Atlantic Right Whales and other marine mammals being hit and killed by vessels. It was obvious that a new generation of navigation tools was needed and in 2001, Rhode Island based company FarSounder was born.

The company was founded by Matthew Zimmerman, a former engineering student at URI with a degree in Ocean Engineering, as well as French and German, and fellow URI graduate Dr. James H. Miller. While at the University, and later at Pyrcon LLC, Matthew and Dr. Miller began working on Forward Looking Sonar and decided to follow up on their research by starting their company to address these issues. Chief Executive Office, Cheryl M. Zimmerman, was a founding director, and came on fulltime in 2002 to lead the company through commercialization of their products. Through her experience in the industry, her position as Executive Secretary of NERACOOS (Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems), her past position as President of the Marine and Oceanographic Technology Network [MOTN], and involvement in other marine organizations, she is in tune to the needs of the marine industry.

Delivering the three critical readings required for obstacle avoidance: range, bearing, and depth, FarSounder challenges the boundaries of sonar technology to provide vessel operators with a practical addition to navigation safety, all in an environmentally friendly system. FarSounder products are on some of the most adventurous expedition cruise ships in the world, from vessels which are traveling the Northwest Passage as well as down to the Antarctic to some of the largest yachts in the world and on Offshore Supply Vessels, survey vessels and other commercial ships.

Because of their unique patented technology, the company has a global customer base of commercial, government and private sector users served by over 50 sales and service partners around the world. With export growth from 50% to 85% over the past several years, the company is recognized as a global leader in real-time 3D sonar systems.

Without the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and other previous government support FarSounder would not have been able to expedite their research and development, which has created sustained company growth since 2004. This support has also enabled FarSounder to expand its product line with its Ship Protection System following years of IR&D and US government funded research. FarSounder has proven that federal programs and strong government support for small businesses can create the innovation and successful commercialization of products.

The FarSounder Ship Protection System is a unique multi-sensor solution with 360º coverage using fixed in-hull sensors. This multi-use system provides underwater threat detection while at anchor and navigation sonar while underway. The system is based on FarSounder’s patented sonar technology which produces a complete 3D image with a single ping. System capabilities include 360º detection of divers and other threats with automatic detection, tracking, classification and alarm algorithms. The technology has been optimized for challenging and shallow environments. The display offers electronic overlays and can differentiate between divers, marine mammals and other benign objects, with minimal false alarms.

From advanced long range 3D Forward Looking Sonar’s to underwater Diver Detection, FarSounder provides a whole new vision underwater. This technology is suitable for both surface and sub-surface vessels and along waterside perimeters.

Looking to the future, FarSounder plans to spin their commercial technology back into government acquisition programs where they believe their systems can provide tremendous value. One innovative strategy is to adapt their navigation & obstacle avoidance systems to the Navy fleet which could help protect the US navy fleet and personnel by preventing groundings and collisions, and enabling such vessels as the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) to safely travel to their missions. These systems could also be used for post-disaster, Tsunami and Hurricane mobilization. Another future plan could be to adapt existing FarSounder security systems to help the Coast Guard track the submerged underwater mini-submarines which are a growing threat to the US and which transport both drugs and armaments up the pacific coast into US waters.

On a more local level, FarSounder has utilized many of the resources available to small business owners. Working with organizations such as the Small Business Development Center (SBDC), the Small Business Administration (SBA), Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) and Bryant University’s Chafee Center for International Business, FarSounder has been able to start, build and grow their company in Rhode Island. A large percentage of FarSounder’s workforce started as interns at University of Rhode Island and other local universities and have now become important members of the full-time team.

“Our best resource is our dedicated, innovative staff”, states Cheryl M. Zimmerman, Chief Executive Officer, “Helping students through increased support of Rhode Island’s public educational system is key to providing the technical and business workforce that FarSounder and other local companies need, both now and in the future,” Ms. Zimmerman continued,  “This is one important area which can have a dramatic, positive effect on helping the state recover and prosper. It will allow innovative companies to continue to employ the staff they need locally and grow successfully, all while staying in our beautiful Ocean State.”

FarSounder is proof that federal and local government support is necessary and available to small businesses. Through years of research, hard work and dedication, FarSounder has built a global company right here in the Ocean State and continues to be an industry leader by creating innovative technology.