Researchers Develop First Sonar For Marine Navigation, Obstacle Avoidance
KINGSTON, R.I. -- January 6, 2004 -- FarSounder, Inc. and a University of Rhode Island researcher have begun commercial production of the FS-3, the first 3-dimensional, forward-looking sonar designed as an aid to marine navigation. With a range of 1,000 feet, a 90 degree field of view, and a refresh rate of just two seconds, the device will allow marine vessels to avoid collisions with submerged obstacles and potentially save the marine industry $2 to $3 billion per year in direct and indirect damage costs.
"We've been told that we've broken the laws of physics with this technology, but we haven't. We've just opened the world up below the water line," said James Miller, a professor of ocean engineering at URI, where he began development of the technology along with former student Matthew Zimmerman, who is now FarSounder's vice president of engineering. "This is a revolutionary leap for marine navigation, especially since most navigational charts in use today are more than 50 years old and many waterways are constantly changing."
The FS-3 is designed primarily for mid-size workboats (70-200 feet) like barges, tugs, offshore oil supply boats, research vessels, and ferries, but it is also of interest to large recreational vessels, the Navy and its contractors, and many others.
It provides high-resolution images of common hazards such as submerged shipping containers, whales, coral reefs, buoys, rocks and coastal ledge, and it is especially useful in navigating shallow waters or for nighttime navigation in unfamiliar harbors.
"There are 22,000 floating shipping containers in the oceans on any given day, and they are of great concern to ships' captains around the world," said Cheryl Zimmerman, chief executive officer of FarSounder, which was listed by Rhode Island Monthly as one of the top ten small Rhode Island companies to watch in 2004. "Owners of petro-chemical barges, in particular, are concerned about any type of collision due to the environmental costs that might result from damage to their vessels."
Added Miller, "Just think of the cost of the Exxon Valdez disaster. If that captain could have had a map of the seafloor ahead of him, that disaster could have been avoided."
The FS-3 passed its final sea tests late in 2003 and was formally launched at the International Workboat Show in New Orleans in December, where it met with great endorsements from boat owners. Priced at between $55,000 and $65,000, the device is coupled with an electronic navigational chart system so users can not only see obstacles and the seafloor ahead of them but also easily see their geographic position.
"Our sonar delivers the three critical readings required for obstacle avoidance: range, bearing and depth. Two-dimensional sonars can only provide two of those three," Miller explained. "And the FS-3 generates a complete 3-D image on one ping every two or three seconds, unlike other systems that require several minutes and many pings to complete an image."
The sonar transmitter and listening devices are encased in a bow-mounted transducer that operates at frequencies well above the hearing range of whales, so marine mammals will not be impacted by its operation. Through "adaptive sonification," the system will soon automatically raise and lower sound levels depending on sea-states and the distance to objects.
The transducer is connected by a custom cable to a power module about the size of a briefcase. The user interface runs Sonasoft, a Windows XP-based graphical program that can be run on a laptop or marine computer. The user-friendly, 3-D volumetric navigational display provides vessel location on electronic charts, depth profile, color mapped depth scale, user-selectable depth and detection thresholds. It can also display GPS, vessel speed and heading data. The system can easily be set up so alarms will sound if obstacles or particular depths are encountered.
The technology used by the FS-3 has a wide range of potential uses and can be customized for individual needs. It can be adapted for Homeland Security uses like shoreland defense, in-water mine detection, terrorist swimmer detection, and defense of bridges and ports. It also could be used as an underwater security camera for dock-owners and waterfront property owners, among other uses.
FarSounder, Inc. is a Providence-based company established by Miller and Matthew Zimmerman in 2001 to bring to market the marine navigation technology they began developing at the University of Rhode Island with the assistance of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. The company has built five generations of prototypes. The FS-3 is its first commercialized product.