Half of the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached to death since 2016, Can Surfbee Help… I think so

Executive Summary — Jack Hurley Founder Surfbee Australia

Surfbee is a flexible unmanned surface robot consisting of a low cost unmanned surface robot, Australian made and designed autonomous navigation system and radio/cell communications for real time data display.

We can deploy 50 Surfbee platforms for the price of 1 internationally owned USV currently in use on Unesco Site 154 AKA The Great Barrier Reef. Australia

What is the challenge Surfbee is trying to solve

Customers face many challenges when trying to gain consistent, accurate sensory information in the marine environment. Reliability and recency of data is the backbone of decision making, with rapid assessment of an area underpinning an ability to efficiently and effectively deploy resources for further investigation or action.

Current approaches are either too difficult to use or too costly, from both an outright acquisition or hire/lease basis. Hiring specialist users to deploy the marine survey device adds another cost on top of the already expensive capital outlay needed — this means getting data into the hands of those who need it most, is inefficient.

There is a need for a low cost, high performing survey device that allows the individual user or organisation to easily upgrade as new technologies are available, whilst keeping ongoing usability high and training times low. We have developed the Surfbee because action relies on information, and we recognise our device is the means to enabling action, not the ends. The Surfbee device and associated technology enables quick and accurate decisions to be made.

What is the Surfbee concept

Surfbee is a revolutionary Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV) consisting of a tough collapsible hull and Australian-made and designed autopilot navigation system and software applications that enables both the collection and presentation of real-time survey data including depth, side scan, geo tagged images and temperature.

The Surfbee is complemented by the ‘Beehive’ suite of products including a ground control station, hand controller unit and proprietary autopilot and long range radio, cellular or satellite link.

The Surfbee is revolutionary because each aspect of the Surfbee has been, and will continue to be designed with both ease, and completeness of use in mind, whilst keeping flexibility paramount. Key to ease of use has been consideration of transport and logistics — the Surfbee is unique in that it fits into a backpack and can be deployed anywhere in the world — so it is tough yet lightweight. The craft consists of a tough PVC rib stitch hull with thrusters attached and can be launched by a single operator from land, boat or air.

The thrusters steer the robot on pre-planned missions, with real-time environmental data being sent back over the 5G network where available, and again, it is the ease of pre-plotting survey routes within the proprietary marine autopilot which will set the Surfbee apart from other marine survey robots. Of course, the Surfbee can be piloted in real time by an operator from anywhere (network choice dependent) in the world and as such utilises a best of breed custom mission control capability. Surfbee will then return to base or some other predetermined point.

True to the notion of Surfbee being both an easy to use and ‘complete’ marine survey platform is the BeeHive Lab. Users are able to ‘plug and play’ a range of supported sensors onto the Surfbee and use cases include pan and tilt cameras, turbity sensors, environmental sensors, radar/sonar and Near Infrared, giving unparalleled flexibility and future proofing the platform as technology advances.

As opposed to traditional manned platforms, Surfbee has a very low noise signature, meaning that environmental monitoring tasks such as passive acoustic monitoring are possible and will not skew data.

The Surfbee offerings range from a 1.2 meter to 6 meter unmanned surface vehicle capable of carrying 1 tonne over 100km autonomously.

How Surfbee support the recovery of the Great Barrier Reef

Essentially, having more people with the right information (real time, actionable data) at a fraction of the cost of traditional survey methods is a powerful and revolutionary way of supporting the recovery of the Reef. In an ideal world, Surfbee will be the ‘go-to’ sensing/survey tool scientists know how to quickly configure and deploy in order to rapidly understand the Reef environment. We want the focus to be on the environment, rather than the technology, by rapidly reducing time needed to learn and deploy the tools which build these understandings.

The Surfbee has powerful application as an easy to deploy and hard to detect surveillance craft, meaning that law enforcement agencies such as fisheries departments and environmental protection agencies can monitor vessels who may be flagged as potentially breaking rules or laws within the Reef environment. Furthermore, using our GPS survey camera (photo/video) or NIR allows for remote inspection tasks, such as assessment of fish stocks. All these features add up to safer worker experience, enhances value of ‘on site hours’ and reduces carbon footprint, increases human resource optimisation and overall increased mission effectiveness, across many use cases.

Drones/aquatic robots are at the forefront of oceanography and scientific research. Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), operator of the Alvin submersible that found the Titanic, has deployed surface drones to inspect the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown, inspect the edges of glaciers and monitor fish stocks. Our ultimate aim is to do it quicker, cheaper and better than existing approaches

Surfbee team’s combined relevant experience

Surfbee has a world class team. Jack Hurley (CEO) has worked at/with CEO’s of ASX Top 20 companies to develop and lead innovation programs. His company currently contracts with Telstra developing robotics for their customers and is a founder of Possum Works co-working space. AS CEO of Firetail UAV, Jack led a company that won the 2016 Pacific Humanitarian Challenge. From this business, Surfbee has flourished. Jack is a CASA Fixed wing and Rotary certified pilot, having built and sold several aviation, boating and GIS Mapping businesses. Jack founded Surfbee and has led his team through development of the various Surfbee innovations.


Chris is a highly experienced computer scientist with specialisations in C/C++ programming; programming in Python, Java, ARM Thumb assembly, x86 assembly. He also has a firm understanding of electronics and designs printed circuit boards. Chris has written code on a wide variety of microcontrollers (e.g. various STM32, PIC32, LPC etc.) and sees technical hardware trends well before others — for example, he developed the world’s first functional cryptocurrency wallet in 2013 , well before such devices were mainstream.

Joel was one of the pioneers of 3D printing in Australia and is owner of one of the most extensive privately owned 3D printing setups in Australia. Surfbee is able to rapidly prototype designs due to Joel’s ability to quickly and accurately print and test and measure design variations.

How will Surfbee be able to be implemented across the Great Barrier Reef

The Surfbee isn’t bound by only one geographical area or narrow use case within the reef. With a presence in Airlie Beach, we are part of the Reef Community and would be able to support the initial and ongoing usage of the Surfbee by an early user community, such as reef researchers and scientists. We see also see opportunity beyond ‘technology’ via opportunities for ‘citizen science’ initiatives based around the remote deployment of the Surfbee. For example, we see a place for the involvement of concerned and interested citizens to support scientific research by acting as the ‘couriers’ and caretakers of a fleet of distributed Surfbees along the Reef coast.

Researchers would be able to remotely pre-program a route whilst local residents could transport the surfbee (or launch and retrieve it) on location, all the while the data is instantly accessible via the SurfBee cloud for researchers to understand what is happening on location, in real time. It’s because the Surfbee is robust and easy enough to use that these kinds of efficiencies or use cases can be even contemplated. As the team has previously received Australian government funding for R&D work on aerial drones we are fully aware and conversant with legal and legislative considerations.

Can Surfbee have an impact on reef ecosystems beyond the Great Barrier Reef

We believe that the need for enhanced sensing capabilities such as those described herein are universal. In fact, access to easy to use and cost effective marine survey approaches such as the Surfbee are potentially even more critical in countries outside of Australia which do not have access to the same level of financial and human capital as we do here, making the need for autonomous, financially viable and easy to use marine sensing capability even more critical. Expansion to new countries is assisted by the ability of users in these countries to use supported equipment and technology specific to that country as the fact that the communications componentry is designed with the ongoing evolution of the 5G LTE spectrum in mind, and will be flexible enough to be adapted to communication via satellite as use cases dictate.

We also see significant use cases for the Surfbee in land-based Riverine Flooding environments, e.g, inspecting flooded towns and critical infrastructure, but also in natural environment inspection cases such as mapping the spread of noxious sea creatures such as the Crown of Thorns starfish. mA potential high-value use for the Surfbee is in the inspection of aquaculture systems such as Oyster farms e.g. inspecting visually with underwater cameras mounted to the Surfbee and providing real-time nutrient level detection in cases where harvesting needs to be halted e.g. after significant rainfall events.

How do we characterise success

Success for the Surfbee is characterised by becoming a vital component of the research capabilities of scientists and researchers and enforcement agencies on the Great Barrier Reef, and beyond. Specifically, our users are telling us about the ways in which the Surfbee has made their work extend further, given them new insights and has helped them take action and raise awareness of the issues confronting the Great Barrier Reef. As such, success for the team behind Surfbee looks like our users coming to us with suggestions and requests for our support to further, and us rapidly evolving the Surfbee to support the ways in which these people want to use the product.

Beyond the immediate project outcomes, there is a clear commercial imperative and success in this regard is based upon developing a viable and successful world leading marine sensing platform from Australia. It would be our intention for this to become a great Australian example of exporting smart technology and high end manufacturing capability.

We have multiple interested commercial resellers with whom we have engaged with and whom are eagerly awaiting the outcome of a potential collaborative design with end users that this project presents, an opportunity which the Surfbee team is hoping will prove invaluable.

In what ways is Surfbee unique

One Surfbee can be up to 25x cheaper than current brands in the market, yet delivers strong sensing capability and outstanding all-round performance. By looking at the total user experience, we’ve been able to create a vessel that will be nimble enough and sturdy enough to be carried in a backpack yet still transport a full sensing payload. Other USV’s offering this degree of capability is normally difficult to use for less skilled operators, harder to transport or are fragile and lack the robustness of our sturdy platform. Good sensing equipment must work in the rough and tumble of the real world.

Our team developed these insights as the successful winners of the 2016 Pacific Humanitarian challenge (Department of Foreign Affairs- Australian Government). The Surfbee team oversaw the development of a low-cost aerial drone (the Firetail) alongside a proprietary (closed source) autopilot, ground control station and development of a testing and deployment program with users who were asked to learn to route and fly a drone with 30 minutes training.

Additionally, we are offering a full suite of sizes, sensing equipment and mission control systems which greatly enhance the value proposition of the SurfBee as a complete sensing platform

In what ways is Surfbee novel

No company in the world offers a backpackable range of Unmanned Surface Vehicles with its own closed source autopilot electronics. The Surfbee’s autopilot can be modified at any time to suit the environment and in doing this allows rapid changes to happen in the field. By using a flexible hull design used extensively in inflatable stand up paddle boards and underwater thrusters that use brushless motors from the aerial drone space we have been able to rapidly bring this concept together by using industry-approved methods.

How do we evaluate the success of Surfbee

The success of the Surfbee is measurable in several ways and be reflective of our Human Centred Design Approach.

Firstly, we engaged with the QLD Reef research and scientific communities. Our project will be successful if we are actively engaging with this community and the members of these industry and research communities are actively providing feedback and engaging with us about their needs. Technically, success is being able to successfully and rapidly develop easy to use, robust hardware and software to support the reef community.

Metrics/Comparative Indicators include

Transport, Training and Launch Performance:

How much lead time is required for training?

Was the craft easy to transport and assemble?

How quickly can the craft be launched?

Was the ground control user experience great?

Was it easy to plan and control the vessel’s journey?

Sensoring and Communication Capability and Performance:

Is the craft’s sensing capability reliable?

Are there a suite of flexible sensing and communication options available to suit each mission?

Lifetime Cost of Acquisition and Usage-Commercial Performance:

Does the Surfbee drive organisational efficiency through enhanced reliability, data insight?

Is the Surfbee robust enough to withstand a range of use cases?

Is working with Surfbee pty ltd a better experience because of responsiveness and agility?

Are commercial/research partners wanting to associate with Surfbee

Commercially, we have strong interest from resellers around the world, based purely on the cost-effectiveness and feature set of the vessel itself (transportability/ease of deployment/use and potential UAV ground control integration).

What are the environmental and social impacts of Surfbee

We do not foresee any negative impacts of the Surfbee device in relation to the development and use of the Surfbee device at this point in time. We are hopeful and confident that the Surfbee can make a hugely positive contribution through both its direct success in building success of scientist and researchers (etc) on the Reef, but also indirectly through positive publicity and awareness raising that the use of the Surfbee will enable.

What are the 1–3 most significant program risks that could slow or obstruct Surfbee’s progress

We are aware that some of the established major marine sensing providers already have a presence/relationship with members of the marine research/science/marine and aquatic industries. We intend to overcome these by leverage team members’ intimate knowledge of the research sector (one team members is an existing staff member at an Australian university) as well as publicising the Surfbee’s management team being the successful winner of previous UAV based innovation challenges, such as the Pacific Humanitarian Challenge, shortlist in the Australian Army Future Drone program and UNESCO ‘Drones for Good’ project.

We believe that our unique approach to user-centric, human design will add a level of expertise and skill to these industries, above and beyond the Surfbee itself.

A second assumption present is the use of cellular technologies. We are extremely aware of the limitations of this technology and are actively pre-empting some of these challenges by exploration of approaches that utilise satellite communications. Satellite communications would enable real time capabilities but would add expense.

In missions where real time data is not significant, we could explore enhanced onboard data storage, and when in range, the Surfbee could upload its data before continuing cost-effectiveness with its’ mission. We aim to leverage our existing partnership with Telstra and their desire to advance an Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem to mitigate and further explore possible developments in regard to communication.

A third consideration is that battery technology is continually changing, and current bulk of batteries mean that mission duration and vessel performance is limited by the ability to store power. The Surfbee 1.2 meter version can currently carry a 50kg payload. In situations where speed and vessel performance is less of a concern and increased range is required, more passive propulsion systems may be considered as development avenues. These options may include sail power, wave/buoyancy propulsion and the development of surfbee specific solar and battery capability.