12th March, 2015
by Angus Hervey
Community Manager, RHoK Australia

On one side of the room in RHoK we have the hackers - undoubtedly the stars of the show. These are the people who come down to make a difference using their awesome tech skills. And they get lots of acknowledgement (as they should) because they give up their time and abilities to make a difference. On the other side though we have the changemakers; the people who champion their individual causes, and without whom none of this would be happening either. Our changemakers are special people. They have an idea, or a project, and they're willing to engage with what's often a new and unfamiliar thing in order to make it happen. 

We sat down with one of our newest changemakers, Robert Dane at the recent summer hackathons and asked him a few questions. Robert is the CEO of Ocius, a really great little project to use a self-powered ocean going drone to gather data about changes in sea temperatures. He told us that he feels lucky to live in this world, and that he wants to leave it a better place than what he came into. He's an optimist, and believes in social change. RHoK has been helping him and his team trying to get some good data visualisation going for the drone so that they can convince the wider public of its uses. 

So how did this all start? 

This whole thing started back in 1999, after we won a solar boat race. I was working in the ferry building business, and the idea was to build a Sydney-based one that was solar powered. I was inspired after watching another solar boat race, and ended up coming up with what I called the "SolarSail" a simple device that harnesses both sun and wind power in a seaworthy way.  To test the commercial application of this technology, we built a 100 person tourist leisure ferry for Sydney Harbour. As a result of our success we ended up going on to build five other ferries around the world. I guess you could say we're sort of like the Prius of Ferries. So from quite early on I've known about the potential for powering ocean going vehicles using solar power. 

I then moved into looking at oceanography platforms around 2007. The work on the solar ferries led me there, because I realised that the sun, wind and waves give you everything you need to have a self-sustaining platform out in the middle of nowhere in the ocean. Seven years of research followed with the building of a 6 metre engineering development model proving a meaningful speed of advance in all conditions, adequate power, payload and persistence for a sustainable platform able to go to sea for months. More recently we've teamed up with the University of Wollongong and a boat builder named Taree on the mid north coast, to develop a boat, propulsion systems, collision avoidance, “sensory informatics” or data processing and autonomy software. The goal is to create the first autonomous drone to be deployed off the Australian coast in September 2015.

Our demo model is called Blue Nemo, and the goal is to try and sail it around Lord Howe Island. It'll be the world’s first completely autonomous return voyage plus circumnavigation to Lord Howe Island from Australia. What's key for us is showing our credibility - that vessel is going to be 1-2 months at sea. So will give indication of sea worthiness, power of vessel, ability to carry payloads. And of course, everyone wants the data! That's because right now most researchers use satellites since readings from boats are really expensive. They range from $20k to $80k for a set, plus men onboard and the deployment of buoys. So a buoy that can self deploy and then self retrieve is a game changer.

How did you hear about RHoK?

Through my son Tom, who is an IT developer. He had been on a RHoK weekend before and said that the quality of work that gets done is excellent. He still wasn't sure about the actual final product - that of course is much harder! But he encouraged me to come because you get input, great ideas and then you can play with those to see what comes out. It's not perfect but it's something, especially for a startup like ourselves. He also thought the hackers would really like it, which they have. So that's been great.

Had you ever heard about hackathons before? 

I had vaguely heard about them. Maybe in a newspaper or something. But I didn't really know what it was. I thought it was a thing for computer nerds, not people like myself! I have to say I'm absolutely amazed after attending this at how much work actually goes into the development of IT. It's been incredibly educational. I have a newfound appreciation for how hard coders and technologists work.  

On a human level, I also find it amazing that very talented people who have never met can work together in these things in such an easy, horizontal way. What I've loved about RHoK is that there are no hierarchies. It's like climbing a mountain. Everyone has common goal but there are no pre-assigned roles. You just do what you can and contribute what you know. What's key is that you're all working towards the same aim and you're fueled by this desire to help. It means everyone contributes equally and pulls their weight. Amazing how everyone just gets on with it! 

ocius bluebottle.JPG

What's next?

Right now the hackers on this project are about to start feeding in data, to see what happens and then get feedback on what they want. We came in to this thing with just an idea, and we're going to be walking away with the majority of the work done. The end result will be a well developed prototype that's been done in a cool, user-friendly way. There are already menus that people can go into a get raw data and the presentation side of things is almost there too. An amazingly good beginning in such a short space of time. Once this hackathon is over the plan is to spend some time between now and March 2015 refining the project and getting feedback from our stakeholders and some test users.