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Michael Gordon Johnson is a man captivated and driven by industry and the oceanic domain. A marine engineer, Merchant Marine officer, 3x entrepreneur and leader, he holds a primary goal of building progressive and sustainable innovation for modern society. Michael is the founder and CEO of Sea Machines, a Boston-based tech company that is a leading provider of autonomous control & intelligent perception systems for marine vessels. The company brings new opportunities to the established domains of marine commerce, marine science, and marine recreation. Michael holds a marine engineering degree from Texas A&M University and has led many major offshore oil & gas and marine transportation and vessel salvage projects around the globe. Prior to starting Sea Machines, he was a Vice President at Crowley Maritime and their affiliate company, Titan Salvage.
Lindsay Gearheart: What is your background and what led you to found Sea Machines?
Michael G. Johnson: I’m a marine engineer. I earned a degree in Marine Engineering from Texas A&M University back in the ‘90s and spent two decades taking on some of the most challenging oceanic and maritime projects, working from Singapore to the Arctic to Europe and Australia. In the course of my career, I saw the need for moving ourselves into the 21st century from a technology standpoint, and specifically in being able to bring more advanced control and digital perception to vessels. So I saw the need and figured I’d be the one who brought it forward.
In 2015, I started Sea Machines. I’m actually a Texan, but strategically established the company where I thought it would have the greatest chance of being successful and settled on Boston. Our first office was in Cambridge, and we moved down to the waterfront here next to Logan Airport in East Boston, where we’ve grown to a crew of 35 and a fleet of 3 vessels. You can see our boats out there on water daily.
LG: How does your technology work?
MJ: There’s many aspects to it, but primarily we’re leaders in the realm of autonomous systems, very similar to what you see in the automotive space, except we’re doing it on water. We have an autonomous control system that manages the full control of a vessel based on commands from a human operator. Put simply, a human operator using a Sea Machines system can command a boat to go from “here to there and do this type of mission,” and the autonomy system will manage the control, steering, speed, position, and heading of a vessel until it completes its mission.
Our technology is “just” autonomous decision making as well as low-level control, but we are also advancing the perception side. We’re spending a lot of our effort in developing new forms of perception using camera vision and building that for on-water operations, bringing long-range LIDAR into it as well.
One of the things that makes us unique is we’re not only developing cutting-edge autonomous technology, we are already commercializing it as usable products. Late last year, we launched two products. The SM300, which is our autonomous control system, is being bought by operators that are working with vessels in restricted environments. We also have a wireless helm system, basically wireless joystick control for vessels. That’s being used by tug operators and others like that, enabling them to control their vessels from outside the traditional wheelhouse.
LG: You mentioned autonomous vehicles, and I know a lot of the talk around autonomous transportation has been around safety. How does your technology impact safety for ships?
MJ: That’s a big part of it. It’s all about safety and predictability of operations, meaning you take out some of those human errors, but then also productivity is a big part. Advanced robotics and autonomous systems find real value in those areas of the three Ds: dangerous, dirty, and dull. One aspect of our domain, because it’s so big, the operations can be long (days & weeks) and therefore dull. When you have humans at the wheel over long durations, it’s human nature – we get distracted and lose focus. Whereas an autonomy system always stays on watch, stays focused, and always stays in command.
Secondly, when you have one person, say up on the bridge, that over that long duration is maintaining situational awareness by perceiving vessels on the horizon and traffic, from studies, it’s been determined that a human really has the capability of multitasking to the point of tracking three or four things at once. During some of these long durations, you’re in a zero traffic environment, and then suddenly you’re in a complex traffic environment. An autonomous system that’s always tracking, always on watch, brings that predictability to your operations and reduces those human error-caused incidents and accidents. Which unfortunately in our space, you may not read about them, but we do have an accident rate that exceeds many comparable industries.
LG: You’ve said that this is a new technology for an industry that has operated the same way for a long time. Have you found there to be resistance to innovation among the commercial marine industry, or simply a dearth of innovators?
MJ: I don’t think there’s resistance to innovation, though we’re a very old and established industry. The maritime industry has become quite commoditized in many forms, where it is more about moving larger quantities and trying to squeeze a little bit more to the bottom line. But now, operators are realizing that, moving into this new century, they really need to focus more on the expense side to improve the bottom line. The way to do that is to invest in technology so that you can do more with less effort.
You asked, “Has it been a lack of innovators?” I think for sure. Our space is significant: marine and maritime contributes to almost 5% of global GDP, but it’s a space that’s really managed and operated by a relatively few number of companies and a few number of people. And the traditional tech companies that serve the marine market are quite large companies that have been around for more than 100 years. We haven’t had those traditional disruptive sparks from smaller startups. That’s part of what we and some other startups in the space are doing, helping move the needle and bring catalysts to the space, and it’s causing the larger OEMs to take notice.
LG: You’ve said that Sea Machines might eventually play a role in making self-driving boat technology for recreational use. Can you talk about that more?
MJ: Again, there’s a big safety issue there – probably every few weeks you read about some high profile person, especially in the summertime, that’s involved in a bad boating accident of some sort. The recreational boating industry is about a $175 billion industry of new boats purchased per year. But one of the things that recreational boat companies in the space realize is that in this day and age where folks are moving faster and life is moving at them faster, they’re not spending the time it takes to actually learn complex things, learning to be a boater is actually something that takes time. Therefore, there tends to be this cap on their space, and what they would like to do is make boating safer and easier to help grow that market. It takes technology, putting these types of systems in there to expand the market and make it more accessible to more people. Also, it’s a consumer market, but as you say, it’s recreational. It’s people wanting to go out and have fun on the water. Using autonomy can not only make it safer and easier, but you can do new things with it as well, so it’ll open up other types of recreational opportunities.
In our last funding round, the largest U.S. recreational boat builder invested in us. Part of it is a move of eventually getting this technology into the recreational space.
LG: What’s next for Sea Machines?
MJ: It’s a big blue ocean, and there’s lots of opportunities, but we’re really maintaining our focus. We’re right now building a technology for the commercial space. We’re advancing our autonomous technology so that eventually you’ll be able to use it outside of restrictive environments and be able to use it over the horizon and then moving into complex traffic situations. And then as I mentioned, digital perception. We’re the leaders in marine camera vision. Building a system that can see everything around a vessel. Right now, it’s about building technology that can perform as good as a great captain on water, and eventually we’ll move beyond that to building technology that’s better than the greatest captain on water.
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