The sea in 3-D

A sonar-type device was invented in 1906, six years before the sinking of the Titanic, to detect icebergs, but it was a passive listening device that did not send out signals and could not have saved the Titanic from its massive collision with an iceberg.

But if FarSounder Inc. had been around in those days, it might have been able to do the job. The company has developed 3-D sonar technology that shows real-time pictures of water depth ahead of a vessel and can be accessed via the Internet using a satellite connection. FarSounder says its 3-D sonar system can detect obstacles in the ocean from 80 meters away.

The Narragansett, R.I.-based startup, founded in April 2001, is alpha testing the technology in Narragansett Bay.

FarSounder's technology is based on research that began at the University of Rhode Island's Department of Ocean Engineering and Ocean Technology Center with help from the Naval Undersea Warfare Center.

URI professor Dr. James Miller, along with mother and son duo Cheryl and Matthew Zimmerman, have hired three employees and have used $250,000 in funding from the Slater Center Technology Fund to launch the company. The team has since been working with Richard Vatcher, former chief executive officer of Raytheon Marine, a division of Raytheon Co. that makes nautical equipment.

Last week FarSounder won the Business Development Co. of Rhode Island's business plan competition, walking away with $50,000, and it was one of the 30 presenters at Venture 2002, the state's annual venture forum.

The BDC is a non-bank lender that is regulated by the state.

The next step, says FarSounder's chief operating officer Cheryl Zimmerman, is to land between $500,000 and $2 million in angel funding.

Founders have been approached by several venture capitalists but say they are not ready to go down that path.

"VCs are offering low valuation," Zimmerman said. "VCs come in and sometimes don't understand the technology."

But the U.S. Navy is interested. FarSounder is in talks with the Navy to partner on the continued development of the system.

Zimmerman said FarSounder will provide the system to the Navy's surface fleet of U.S. submarines, and the Navy in turn would fund some of FarSounder's research. The system would help the Navy detect underwater divers trying to place bombs on U.S. submarines.

The target market at this stage, says Zimmerman, is the mega-yacht market or the sellers of mega-yacht devices, and the tug boat or smaller vessel market.

The FS-3 is expected to cost between $75,000 and $100,000 for mega-yacht consumers.

"Boats are still depending on NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) charts from the 1940s," Zimmerman said.

Oil tankers, which could use the system to save them from causing oil spills, would pay between $250,000 and $400,000.

Zimmerman said it's a small cost for oil companies, which spend between $2 billion and $3 billion annually for the cost of grounding.

"Oil companies lose hundreds of thousands of dollars a day (in grounding incidents)," Zimmerman said. "That's why barge companies are very anxious."

Unlike other sonar technologies on the market, Zimmerman said FarSounder's system scans the front, sides and bottom of vessels all in one swoop, while other systems take individual photos of each section.

Traditional sonar, according to FarSounder, tells the user what the depth is directly below the sounder and cannot give warnings of hazards or obstacles ahead of the vessel such as submerged rocks or sandbars.

Forward-looking, or two-dimensional, sonars can tell the user that there is an object within a particular range but does not tell if it is at the surface or on the sea bottom, or if the object is two feet or 200 feet below the surface.

Using these systems, "you don't see (the obstacle) until you are on top of it, so what good is that?" Zimmerman said.

FarSounder's system gives users additional tools that map the surface of the obstacle using different colors to signify its size, density and potential threat.

Captain Ahab could have used FarSounder's system to hunt down the white whale Moby Dick. The National Marine Fisheries Services, a unit of NOAA, used a proof-of-concept system to detect whales.

"We took it out on a three-night cruise with them from Woods Hole to Virginia," said co-founder Matthew Zimmerman.

Through two service contracts, FarSounder's system was also used off the coasts of Malta and South Carolina to detect whales.

The Navy was performing warfare testing and needed to increase the volume of low frequency sounds. Because this may be damaging to whales, the FarSounder system was used to alert the Navy to the presence of whales.