Success stories

Virtual safety on the water

open this image in new window: Vesper Marine technology was used by Americas Cup San Francisco 2013 and Bermuda 2017

The creator of the America’s Cup virtual boundary is deep into a project building the next generation of the technology.

At a glance

  • Auckland firm Vesper Marine makes a range of recreational and commercial marine safety systems.

  • Its most high-profile product is the virtual boundary used to mark the edge of the racecourse in regattas such as the America’s Cup.

  • Thanks to a significant R&D push it is now at the pointy end of creating the next gen version of its technologies.

  • The firm has made use of Callaghan Innovation R&D grants to enable the launch of a ground-breaking marine safety product in 2019.

Have you ever wondered how the flotilla of spectator boats gathered around the edges of the America’s Cup race course knows where the boundary is?

It’s thanks to a marine safety system created by one small Auckland company.

Vesper Marine’s virtual boundary was used to corral the spectator fleet at both the 2013 and 2017 America’s Cup regattas in San Francisco and Bermuda, and during the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean race.

Vesper Marine Guardian Technology remotely marks the course for the Volvo Ocean Race in 11 Inport races
Vesper Marine Guardian Technology remotely marks the course for the Volvo Ocean Race in 11 Inport races

The edge of the course is marked by virtual buoys, using AIS (Automatic Identification System) technology. If the weather changes and the course must be moved, the virtual markers are simply moved along with it.

AIS is an international standard that most vessels of any decent size have implemented in their onboard systems, Vesper Marine Co-founder Carl Omundsen says.

“Our Guardian solution creates a ring fence around the race course that enables any skipper on a spectator boat to be able to see where the outline is,” he says.

Vesper Marine’s AIS transponders have world-leading technology and are sold in over 30 countries.

However AIS is now becoming a victim of its own success, which has posed a new challenge for the Kiwi firm.

VOR Inport Race Capetown uses Vesper Marine Guardian technology
VOR Inport Race Capetown uses Vesper Marine Guardian technology

Next gen tech

It’s not all about the glamour of elite yacht racing at Vesper Marine. The company makes a wide range of marine safety systems, from recreational products through to commercial solutions.

One of its solutions is Guardian:mark, a system of virtual AIS buoys used by industries such as ports, the energy sector and aquaculture to help vessels avoid hazards and to protect submerged assets such as power and data cables. The virtual buoys can be placed via a cloud application in locations where it’s impossible to put a physical marker. Another in the same suite of products, Guardian:protect, is what is used in events such as the Volvo Ocean Race.

Development of the Guardian system was the result of the deep expertise Vesper Marine built up in its successful AIS transponder business. These are devices installed into boats that broadcast their location and receive the location of vessels around them, thereby helping avoid collisions.

Vesper Marine AIS transponders used by recreational sail boats and power boats in over 30 countries.
Vesper Marine AIS transponders used by recreational sail boats and power boats in over 30 countries.

While AIS was originally intended as a means of stopping vessels from colliding, it is now used for an array of marine navigation purposes and the airways are getting crowded, Carl says.

Thus, Vesper is deep into an R&D project to develop the next generation of its technology. For commercial reasons it can reveal no more than that, but suffice it to say Vesper Marine is a small company that knows it needs to innovate to stay ahead of the game.

“We’ve always punched above our weight in certain markets, such as the US,” Carl says. “It’s because we’ve always focused on the value-add, not just the widget, and solving some real-world problems. We need to continue to do that, and the only way is to continue to invest in R&D.

“It’s an opportunity for us, because we’ve always focused on how to enhance safety at sea, and we do that using innovation and digital communications technologies,” he says.

“Taking this thing to market”

Callaghan Innovation’s assistance has been integral to the company’s R&D effort.

Firstly, it made use of a Callaghan Innovation Student Grant to bring a Masters student on board who ran an 18-month project exploring the basic concept.

Vesper Marine Guardian technology in use during Auckland's VOR Inport Race
Vesper Marine Guardian technology in use during Auckland's VOR Inport Race

That produced a successful outcome, and then the company needed to take the feasibility study further, Carl says.

“So we approached Callaghan Innovation, and they backed us again through a Project Grant.

That finished in February, and the next stage was a co-funded Growth Grant.

“What we applied for in terms of the Growth Grant was leveraging all the work we’d done previously with the Project Grant, which was quite exploratory and high risk,” he says.

The company’s focus now is “taking this thing to market”, Carl says.

“True innovation in marine electronics is surprisingly rare. We are in the final stages of developing an incredibly innovative marine safety product, there really is nothing like it out there.  Because of that, I can’t go into any details.

“We expect huge things through our global network of resellers when we launch next year – particularly in the US where we have considerable market presence already.”

Vesper initially worked with Auckland’s economic growth agency, Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED), which runs the Regional Business Partnership (RBP) network for the region.

ATEED’s Business and Innovation Advisor, David Claridge, then referred Vesper Marine to Callaghan Innovation so that its R&D work could continue.  

“Carl Omundsen and CEO Jeff Robbins are hard-working engineers and so have always been innovation and product-focused,” he says.

“It’s a highly competitive market and Vesper Marine is an active exporter putting resources into future-proofing its technology.

“The project they were able to conduct with the help of Callaghan Innovation has given them a clear position on what market opportunities to pursue,” David Claridge says.

Updated: 1 November 2018