Warwick firm’s 3-D sonar system on board

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Paul Grimaldi

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Participants on the Cap'n BertJAMESTOWN — Boaters shouldn’t be ridiculed if they fear the dark, particularly when it cloaks things large enough to crush a hull.

That’s where sonar technology comes in, which detects underwater objects and measures water depth by emitting sound pulses and noting their reflected return.

Sonar technology is decades-old, intermittently refined over the years by engineers trying to better serve mariners, the military, transporters and researchers.

Warwick-based FarSounder Inc. is among them.

Company executives showed off their precise sonar technology during demonstrations for customers and business partners Thursday, in the East Passage.

The marine electronics manufacturer makes forward-looking 3D-sonar systems that are useful for both avoiding collisions with unseen objects, but also for detecting underwater intruders, such as divers. In essence, the sonar acts as a headlight, giving ship captains the ability to see obstacles underwater in front of their ships.

“Our original motivation for developing this sonar was to avoid hitting whales,” said company cofounder Matthew Zimmerman during the demonstration aboard the Cap’n Bert, a URI research boat.

The sonar units have a maximum range of one-quarter mile or one-half mile. One of the latest versions is sensitive enough to distinguish divers from fish or marine mammals and track their movements.

The state’s Samuel Slater Technology Fund invested more than $100,000 in FarSounder during the company’s infancy. It received a $2-million grant in 2007 from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The private company, in its 10th year, was founded by Jim Miller, a URI professor, and Zimmerman, one of his former students.

Zimmerman is now the company’s vice president of engineering. His mother, Cheryl M. Zimmerman, is the FarSounder’s chief executive officer. She was an engineer for both General Electric Corp. and Helix Corp.

A FarSounder system costs about $100,000.

The vessels that use a FarSounder system are big –– really big. It can be found built into the bows of cruise ships and mega-yachts that stretch up to 525 feet.

The company exports about 60 percent of its products, which can be found in places like the Principality of Monaco — the Riviera enclave that plays host to wealthy globetrotters. FarSounder is looking to expand in Brazil, India and China.

“If we had to depend on the U.S.,” said Cheryl Zimmerman, “we wouldn’t be [located] here, we’d be overseas.”

Still, the company is trying this year to forge ties with New England marinas and boat-builders as a way to reach owners of more “mainstream” yachts than the Dubai — a 525-foot ship owned by the ruler of the Persian Gulf emirate.

FarSounder holds demonstrations twice a year, both here and abroad. Demonstrations here are held on the boat leased from URI. Rather than incorporated into the boat’s hull as it would be normally, the sonar device is mounted on a metal pole suspended off the bow on the boat’s centerline.