FarSounder Technology Helps to Look Out Below

FarSounder, Inc. is a Providence, RI, based technology company incorporated in 2001. FarSounder's underwater acoustic technology provides mariners the ability to "see-ahead,"underwater, in 3D, with simultaneous range, bearing and depth information.

The technology is based on research begun at the University of Rhode Island's Department of Ocean Engineering and Ocean Technology Center with assistance from the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. Over the last six years, FarSounder engineers have been developing a range of navigational sonar systems. FarSounder's technology now makes it possible to image rocks, the sea floor, whales and other obstacles underwater similar to the way that radar detects obstacles above water.

The company introduced the FS-3, its first commercialized product, in 2004. Its early customers included Superyachts and small cruise ships. Now that its reputation has spread, sales of the navigation and obstacle avoidance sonars are global and systems have been installed in diverse places such as Singapore, Germany, Australia, Turkey and Vancouver.

According to Cheryl Zimmerman, FarSounder's president, the company received a Phase 2 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the Department of Homeland Security to develop a low cost underwater threat detection system. FarSounder will design, build and operate a 3-D forward seeking sonar device that will locate divers and diver delivery vehicles. The SBIR project started officially at the end of June and will run for 22 months. FarSounder will demonstrate the product and hopefully commercialize it upon completion.

Swimmer detection technology is being used mostly in navy applications to protect ships in foreign ports from underwater intruders. In the U.S., the U.S. Coast Guard uses everything from cameras, to motion sensors to creative configurations of sonar systems designed for bottom mapping and target location on the seafloor. The swimmer detection systems in use today are geared toward locating a suspicious target, which triggers an alarm and a subsequent response by personnel.

The U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard are concerned about this threat - particularly given the response time needed by personnel once an alarm has sounded - especially in light of what happened to the USS Cole in Yemen several years ago. Although the Cole was attacked by a surface vessel, it showed the vulnerability of ships in port.

While the systems being developed to protect the Navy ships are more complex,costly and, understandably, proprietary, the SBIR grant that FarSounder received is an effort to spur technology innovation by small companies for the development of technologies that can be more economical for public ports and facilities.

The system that FarSounder is being asked to develop for the Department of Homeland Security will be low cost ($100,000 or less per 1,000 ft. of shoreline), 3-D and be able to be deployed in shallow water. Each sensor can have a wide area swath. The sensors will all be integrated to cover the coast line being monitored.

To prepare for the SBIR grant, FarSounder completed a market analysis to understand the demand for such a system and to determine which U.S. ports could benefit immediately. They found that large ports such as Miami, and smaller ports such as Quonset Point in Rhode Island could both utilize the lower cost underwater threat technology being developed. In fact, FarSounder demonstrated how useful it can be on a very windy, low visibility day off the docks at Quonset. The results were tremendous. The system could identify a diver treading water and crawling along the sea floor, even in a 25 knot breeze and with silt kicked up on the bottom.

What sets the FarSounder system apart is its proprietary way of producing a 3D view of a target. One of the things they are going to do as part of the SBIR project is to add more sophisticated classification of targets using their 3D technology which combines spatial, geometric, temporal and spectral information. The more information gathered over a longer period, the more detailed an identification can result. Integration of this data will result in lower false detection rates. Unlike 1D and 2D sonar systems, FarSounder's unique 90 degree forward-looking sonar displays a new 3D underwater map every two seconds, and provides mariners with a major advancement in obstacle avoidance and navigation technology.

FarSounder's products have the potential to avert billions of dollars in damages attributable to marine groundings. It also can serve as an enormously positive environmental force by detecting and thus protecting the endangered Right Whale from fatal collisions with large vessels. Although forward-looking sonars exist in various forms, other technologies have very limited range in shallow water. This is precisely when the vessel's captain is in the greatest need of an accurate, real-time picture of the obstacles and water depths ahead of the vessel.