The Boxfish start-up story: Making advanced instruments to see more and go further underwater

Story and photos by Gilbert Peterson

Emerging from a former dive shop in Parnell Auckland is a business start-up turning out technically sophisticated products belying their humble origins.

Boxfish Research, an R&D based venture employing three engineers, began in the founders’ kitchens because, Axel Busch says, “we didn’t have a garage.”

We get to play with the latest Boxfish machine, a remotely operated underwater vehicle for a few turns in the pool outside. The control toggles on the laptop are like those of any computer game, and like them you watch on screen as you control the speed and direction of the vehicle. But the differences from computer games are large; the machine’s thrusters are highly sensitive; it turns and accelerates precisely and rapidly, ready to photograph in the murk, or reach out with a grabber to bring back a sample plant or rock.

Boxfish Research’ founders are left to right are Ben King (Mechanical Engineering), Craig Anderson (Electronics Engineering) and Axel Busch (Business and Software)

Boxfish Research’ founders are left to right are Ben King (Mechanical Engineering), Craig Anderson (Electronics Engineering) and Axel Busch (Business and Software)

You identify through its scanners what you want to capture. You see as well as feel what may be possible.

The first Boxfish product to hit the market, the Boxfish 360, was an underwater spherical camera able to capture 360 degree images, and designed to allow researchers the capacity to scan and record the widest possible context of their investigations at depth. It boasts three frame imaging able to be merged into one seamless 360 degree video or still projection.

The original intention for the camera was to integrate it with what the team has been working on since 2014; the affordable, high performance ROV.

The Boxfish team showed the camera at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year to strong interest, and after two years of development the first of them have found willing buyers at a price starting at $19,000 each.

Now the ROV prototype too, is up and ready to be demonstrated.

Axel is confident that for its scale, and weighing a manageable 28 kg, the ROV is the lowest cost piece of research equipment of its type available. The next such vehicle with similar capabilities, a Swedish machine, weighs 90 kg requiring a crane to lift it in and out of water. That ROV was designed to cater for the requirements of undersea oil and gas maintenance and the like, and costs some $200,000. The Boxfish ROV is expected to sell for about a quarter of that.

“But we’re not aiming for the same market,” Axel says. “We’re aiming to interest mostly science and technology researchers, and people like film makers.”

And undersea archaeologists. One such person is very interested since the photogrammetry able to be recorded by the Boxfish ROV is a highly prospective application.

Dive Editor-At-Large Dave Moran takes a turn operating the ROV remotely

Dive Editor-At-Large Dave Moran takes a turn operating the ROV remotely

Other users include salmon and mussel farms, and for example, police and customs services needing to inspect ship’s hulls.

Ben King, responsible for the mechanical design, says to get the required responsiveness for their machine they adapted technology used for drones in the air, then made it waterproof.

He says it’s not so hard to achieve water tightness to 500 metres but beyond that it’s very interesting and very tricky.

“Plus, in water we added the possibility of being able to drive the vehicle while remaining at an angle which you can’t do in the air.”

The Boxfish prototype can speed along at two and half knots and descend to 1000 metres using its eight thrusters, with 20,000 lumens of light to show the way, and with sonar, a grabber and other sensors able to be added.

Axel says their extensive testing shows the Boxfish ROV can lose up to five of its thrusters, due to sand or kelp entanglement for example, and still get home due to it’s smart piloting system developed by co-founder Craig Anderson.

Developments like these are ongoing part and parcel of such projects; the Boxfish team is continuing to make modifications to the ROV’s thrusters, further develop its electronics, power distribution systems, lighting, and radio for use as a back-up communications system.

And they’re working towards delivering an untethered ROV next year using optical and acoustic obstacle avoidance or acoustic signals for the vehicle’s controls.

The future is all about developing better and more versatile machines and devices for exploring the underwater world.