If you were surprised to learn that Vermont had a nascent space industry, you’ll be even more so to find out that it is also home to a fast-growing player in the multibillion-dollar undersea economy. Tucked away in the Green Mountains, in downtown Richmond, VT, Greensea Systems has stealthily crept up on the submarine industry, and with its patent-pending Opensea operating system – the only integrated submarine control and navigation software platform in the market – has scored a direct hit with clients in the private sector and the military.
Ben Kinnaman founded Greensea in 2006 with the goal of improving and simplifying the operation of remote-operated undersea vehicles, aka ROVs, or unmanned submarines. At that time, the difficult problem of accurately navigating underwater, where there’s no GPS available, was handled by an array of instruments – multiple sensors, sonar, video cameras, and more – each with its own computer. There was no standard for sharing the data between disparate systems, which put a tremendous burden on the human in charge to integrate and act upon the disparate streams of information. By 2008, Kinnaman, who holds a master’s degree in robotics from Johns Hopkins University, had come up with a system that could merge all the incoming data from a submarine’s navigation and control systems in a single user dashboard.
Experience with custom installations for early clients in industry, the military, and scientific organizations such as NOAA, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography helped Greensea to optimize its software and its interface with a variety of hardware systems. Private submarine owners such as Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen were also instrumental in bringing attention to the little company in Vermont. In 2015, Schmidt even sent his mentor, Stuart Feldman, the creator of UNIX, and MIT undersea robotics researcher Michael Benjamin to Vermont to vet the system.
Since 2014, Greensea has been in scaling-up mode, expanding its presence in the market by partnering with submarine manufacturers, the OEMs, and getting them to adopt Opensea OS as a standard feature of their vehicles. These makers are now integrating Greensea’s technology into new vehicles – and can add it to existing submarines as a standard retrofit. Taking the commercial route, rather than focusing mainly on military sales, “was both an offensive and a defensive maneuver,” says Marybeth Gilliam, Greensea’s chief marketing officer. “Since our commercial customers have sales to the military, we now have an invitation to the military through our partners. And manufacturers have come on strong to not be left behind.”
Partnering with manufacturers has also helped Greensea to expand the functionality of their systems, and to get them into an increasing variety of specialized vehicle types. “We’ve shown we’re a system for the marine industry,” says Gilliam, “not just ROVs, but diver-propulsion vehicles, towed vehicles, small manned submarines, and surface vehicles, too.” Greensea’s system will enable what the company calls “supervised autonomy” in a new diver propulsion vehicle – imagine a sort of underwater scooter – to be used by a cutting-edge special forces team. The user imports a map, clicks a waypoint, and the vehicle “flies” them to the location automatically. The company also recently demonstrated fully autonomous undersea navigation, allowing vehicles like these to be deployed without people – say, steering themselves to a designated rendezvous point.
This August, a team at Paul Allen’s company Vulcan Inc. utilized Greensea technology in a deep-sea remote operated submarine to discover the wreckage of the USS Indianapolis, which sank near the end of WWII and came to rest nearly three and half miles beneath the Philippine Sea. Greensea is now in talks with Vulcan to install an Opensea system in Allen’s two-person manned submarine, the Pagoo, which rides on the billionaire’s superyacht.
Revenue grew about 65% last year and is on track for a similar leap this year. Customers now include more than 15 vehicle manufacturers. Since 2015, payroll has roughly doubled to 20 employees today – and the company is hiring. Greensea currently has five open positions, for assembly technicians, software and robotics engineers, and sales. “We try to keep an open mind about people who apply,” says Gilliam, who concedes that attracting talent to Vermont can be challenging. However, she says, the landlocked state offers a host of benefits, starting with nearby Lake Champlain – an ideal deep and dark testing ground for Greensea’s navigation systems. Local vendors provide Greensea with machined metal housings and some computer boards, and a local crane operator helps deliver larger Pisces-class deep-sea submarines into the workshop for retrofitting. “Vermont has a lot of people used to working with their hands,” says Gilliam. “They have life experience that contributes to a great work ethic and an ability to learn how systems work.”
Ready to take the plunge? You can meet reps from the company, and check out some submarines, at the upcoming VT Tech Jam.