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College buddies dive into drone market

Inexpensive underwater robot should be ready for public next summer.

September 2, 2016
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Fathom One
Fathom One, as the underwater drone is known, is equipped with a camera and high-density LED lighting. Courtesy Fathom

Like countless others before him, Danny Vessells found his inspiration in nature.

Growing up, Vessells heard stories about the logging industry in Boyne Falls, where his grandparents had a cottage on Lake Louise. For years, logging tools and artifacts washed ashore, providing the populace with unique home decorations. But what piqued Vessells’ interest were the stories of the sleds and carriages used to carry logs over the frozen lake during the winter.

Over the years, a number of sleds too heavy to cross had fallen through the ice and sunk to the bottom of the lake, where they remain to this day. But without being scuba certified and not having thousands of dollars to spend on an underwater robot to investigate, Vessells had no way of verifying these claims. When he returned to Hope College for his junior year, however, he had an idea.

Vessells recruited his friends, Matthew Gira and John Boss, also students at Hope, to help him develop an affordable underwater drone system. As the trio worked on the project, they began to realize there could be a market for what they were creating — and Fathom was born.

With Boss working as the lead designer, Gira handling the business operations and Vessells the marketing and consumer outreach, Fathom developed a business plan to bring their product to market.

After nearly two years of work and several prototypes, the Fathom team developed a usable prototype about four months ago and began to test the drone in a pool. The most recent iterations of the prototype — Fathom One — performs dives anywhere from Lake Michigan to Belize.

“This one has been really rugged and battle tested,” Vessells said. “We’ve got one that we can use out in the fields.”

Fathom One is equipped with a 1080p camera and onboard high-intensity LEDs, in addition to a patent-pending modular thruster attachment system that allows for easy removal to further customize the device. Controlled via a smartphone app, Fathom One is capable of diving 150 feet underwater and boasts a battery life of one hour.

Vessells said the biggest draw for Fathom One will be the price — $600 out of the box, or about $1,000 cheaper than the closest competition. Fathom One, which Vessells said is the smallest underwater drone on the market by a substantial margin, is designed for anyone to use it, not just the diehard hobbyists and scientific community.

Along with a streamlined production process, it’s the ease of use that allows for the highly portable Fathom One to be affordable. By stripping away the more complex features and capabilities of most underwater drones, Fathom has created a product that provides a simplified experience for a wider market.

“We’re focused on anybody being to be able to pick it up,” he said. “I like to say I can give it to my 90-something-year-old grandma and she can (operate) it right away.”

While new Federal Aviation Administration regulations went into effect requiring pilots of aerial drones to get licensed, there are no current regulations for underwater vessels, making it an attractive alternative for consumers.

Additionally, Fathom One is designed for full customization. Because the drone is equipped with easily removable thrusters, there are a number of options available, from installing larger thrusters to potential sonar capabilities or attachments designed for pipe inspection or other commercial uses.

“Down the line, we’ll come out with various attachments where customers can use the same base model but have a totally new experience,” Vessells said.

On Aug. 30, Fathom launched a Kickstarter with the goal of raising enough money to fund the development of the product through Edgewater Automation, a St. Joseph-based custom automation manufacturer. As of Aug. 31 morning, just more than 24 hours after its Kickstarter launch, Fathom already had raised nearly $60,000 of its $150,000 goal.

If the Kickstarter goal is met, the Fathom team will enter the beta phase of field testing and plans to commit to full production tooling by March 2017. By next June, the plan is to begin to fulfill Kickstarter pre-orders and release Fathom One to the public.

“We’ve been working on it for two years, so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous or anxious, but I think we like the progress that we’ve had so far,” Vessells said. “We like the direction we’re going, and time will tell, but hopefully, we can continue this progress.”

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