Nelson startup Marine AI is developing autonomous vessels that will be able to safely navigate New Zealand inshore and coastal waters, acting as a data collection platform for marine farm operators and for environmental monitoring purposes.

Marine AI will fit the surface vessels – essentially crewless boats – with artificial intelligence (AI) – hence the name Marine AI. The Autonomous Surface Vessels (ASV) will be fitted with an AI-based navigation system called Guardian which will allow the vessels to be self-driven. They will carry a suite of sensors, sampling equipment and computer vision systems that can collect data, samples, and survey the infrastructure. Data collected will lead to increases in productivity in aquaculture, including mussel farming, and will assist in improving safety across the maritime industry.

The first four metre long ASVs will be designed and built by local Nelson firm Kernohan Engineering starting early next year, and once tested and approved, they will be operating initially around Nelson Port and into Tasman Bay, used by aquaculture workers including mussel farmers. 

There are 4,500 hectares of water divided among the 660 mussel farms in New Zealand. The biggest in Golden Bay is 270 hectares and Marine AI hopes to expand to Hawke’s Bay and Southland. Each ASV can scan around 100 hectares a month.

“We are building vessels, fitting them out, testing them to ensure they operate autonomously, and then we have to work with Maritime New Zealand to ensure they are safe to operate in New Zealand’s port and harbours,” Marine AI Managing Director Sean Doggett says.  

Doggett, after involvement in marine engineering and technology in Great Britain, emigrated to New Zealand 17 years ago, and worked in Nelson where he and Robert Cumming formed Marine AI two years ago.

Marine AI is also a partner in Moananui, a Nelson-based economy cluster of organisations launched in March 2023 that aims to grow Aotearoa’s blue economy. A blue economy is defined as a sustainable economic growth model that preserves the health of marine and coastal ecosystems.

Kernohan Engineering is a foundation partner of Moananui. Doggett says he is particularly pleased with how local engineering and aquaculture businesses have worked together to grow the local industry in Nelson.

“The best thing about Marine AI is how we are collaborating with other engineering and tech companies like Kernohan, Snap Group and Cawthron Institute. We buy into each other’s vision – that level of collaboration is here, and people want to do it.”

It is the successful collaboration with local businesses that gave Doggett the confidence to hire four staff members. He now says, with the benefit of hindsight, he wished he had that confidence earlier in the process to ‘staff up a little earlier’, to accelerate the growth of the startup.

Marine AI will own and operate the Kernohan-built ASVs. Clients such as mussel farmers and other aquaculture businesses will then purchase and use the data and intelligence generated from the vessels. AI can also be used to analyse the data.  It’s a first for New Zealand.

“Nobody has brought all of this stuff in together, integrating it onto one platform,” Doggett says.  “We’re hoping to have the first vessel in the harbour with all the equipment fitted onto it by the end of summer. We then need to do some testing, with more to be built by August next year.”

But Doggett said the vision of Marine AI and the idea to create ASVs to assist the aquaculture industry took some time to materialise and articulate, as people came to grips with understanding the concept of AI.

Marine AI
Marine AI’s headquarters, Nelson, New Zealand.

‘You operate in a bit of a vacuum when you first have an idea. You have a problem you think you can solve, but then you ask how to solve it. You go to customers and tell them they have this problem, and they say, ‘no, it’s not really a problem’. They are too busy in their own businesses to appreciate that things can be improved to increase productivity.”

“We can see the benefit, we hear all the problems, but as soon as you mention AI and technology, barriers come up.  Then finally people started to say, ‘oh yeah, that’s a good idea”.

Doggett says Marine AI, through data generated from its ASVs, can help aquaculture businesses increase their bottom line. “They currently can’t expand at the rate they should be able to, as they don’t have the resources.”

The startup expects to enter the market and be self-funded by the end of 2025. It is currently funded for a further two years with venture capital via MSubs Limited in Great Britain, although the New Zealand operation is a standalone startup, not a subsidiary.

As an entrepreneur Doggett wants to make a difference and do so successfully. “On a personal level success is building a company that is growing, giving back to the community, and making a difference, thus enabling aquaculture to expand,” he says.

“That’s what it needs to do – that’s a big driver for us.”

Story by Dave Crampton in partnership with Nelson Regional Development Agency (NRDA).

Innovation Nation is an annual series celebrating stories of innovation and diversity in entrepreneurship from around New Zealand.

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