Anyone who doubted Thomas Chance’s decision to sell C&C Technologies to Oceaneering in early 2015 probably doesn’t know what the self-described “washed up electrical engineer” has been up to since then.
While his brother Jim retired after the sale, Thomas has plunged into a venture that he actually started at C&C and now heads.
Focused on the development of autonomous surface vehicles, ASV Global is one of the leading technology companies in the world.
“Everybody’s heard of self-driving cars,” Chance says in an interview at his Broussard office. “We do self-driving boats.”
C&C was the company he and his brother formed in 1992 after the Dutch firm Fugro bought John E. Chance & Associates, the surveying firm their father had started in 1957, two years before Thomas Chance was born.
They carved a nice niche for the firm performing underwater surveys using autonomous underwater vehicles. When Oceaneering bought C&C, there were about 600 workers in the company that operated out of its headquarters on Kaliste Saloom Road.
“I had started working on what became ASV in 2010,” explains Chance, who has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from LSU and master’s degrees in both engineering and industrial administration from Purdue. “I hired a couple of guys in the UK, some naval architecture guys. We had those guys work with our software guys, our electronics guys and our operations guys here in Lafayette.”
Chance noted that the sale of C&C to Oceaneering closed just before the price collapse hit the oil industry. “It was very fortuitous timing,” he says.
Oceaneering kept the autonomous underwater vehicles technology C&C had developed and took a 20 percent stake in ASV.
“We have a great relationship with those guys,” Chance says. “And they’re strong in both defense and non-defense markets, so they have a lot of capability, so it’s nice to be able to work with those guys, too.”
While there are boats in the Broussard shop and ASV is also building “a couple of boats” in its Portsmouth, England, facility, Chance says that ASV is a technology company.
“The reality is that there’s lots of people in the boat-building industry, especially when you’re talking about aluminum boats that are 20 to 40 feet long,” Chance notes. “So, so we’re better off subcontracting those guys to build hulls and we put all the intelligence on there — the collision avoidance software, the brains that make it work. And then help the clients with their payloads.”
“The proprietary stuff is the software,” Chance says. “We’re a technology company.We’re not a boat manufacturer, although we’ve done a little of that. But, we’re certainly a technology company.”
Chance says the combination of technology, people and experience puts ASV in an enviable position in an industry still in its infancy.
“The proprietary software puts us in a strong position,” Chance explains. “But, it’s a combination of the software and the wide spectrum of people that we have. We’re very fortunate. We have an inordinate amount of talent on both sides of the ocean.”
Chance says the experience gained at C&C gives ASV a particular advantage. “We have people that have been putting electronics in salt water for 20 years,” he Photo by Robin May says. “It’s always underestimated how easy it is for water to get in to connectors and mess stuff up. We have people that know how to operate in 12-foot seas and not do crazy things. We have people who know how to write software for autonomous systems dating back to the CajunBot. It takes all of those links in the chain to make it work.”
ASV’s clients range from academic researchers to European defense companies. About 75 of the company’s 100 employees are based in the UK, with some also operating out of sales offices in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Houston.
Chance says ASV has delivered more than 80 systems, a combination of completely unmanned vehicles and conversions of manned boats to autonomously operated ones. “I think this is going to be a big opportunity for us,” Chance says about the conversions. The boats range from about 8 feet long up to about 42 feet long, although he says he’s been in talks with companies and governments about converting boats up to 180 feet in length to unmanned operations.
Chance is not sure how big the industry is at this point, but he knows that he does not have that many direct competitors. Promotional materials for a January 2017 report on the global unmanned surface vehicle market produced by Absolute Reports lists ASV as one of the top 10 companies in the industry.
ASV’s system is based on tiered layers of information gathered in advance and in real time that is integrated by its software. The company also monitors its vessels and equipment remotely from Broussard and Portsmouth.
“You start with the known data,” Chance says. “A nautical chart of the area will say the water’s this deep here, there’s a bank right there that you don’t want to run into, or a jetty or something. So, you know all this stuff a month before you go out.”
“A level up from that you have AIS [automatic identification system], which is a radio system that a lot of boats will have that says, ‘I’m this boat, these are my coordinates, and I’m going this way in this direction at this speed,’” Chance adds. “More and more boats are incorporating this. So, for anybody that has that, it’s transmitted out into that local area, so we know that there’s boats out there and we need to avoid those boats.
“The level up from there is that we take radar information,” Chance continues. “We have high frequency radar in the boats. So, in addition to the boats with AIS, we can identify more boats that don’t have AIS, and buoy or a piling or whatever that we need to avoid. ... From there, we go into thermal cameras. So, if you see a float, a lot of times those things will just glow on a thermal camera real well, even at night. Or, if somebody’s in the water, you’ll be able to see them with a thermal camera — assuming they’re alive, right. If they’re the same temperature as the water, the thermal camera’s not going to see them. So, then you go to daylight cameras.”
The state of the art in the industry right now is “somewhere in the camera zone,” he says.
And there is a whole spectrum of autonomy.
“It ranges from joystick control — which is very simple — all the way over to ‘you untie the boat and off it goes, see you in two months, good luck! If you get yourself in trouble, you’ll have to figure out what to do because that’s really autonomous.’ Nobody’s made it all the way to that end of the spectrum, and we’re probably as far along as anybody in the world on that arc.”
Chance says he’s not sure where this is all heading, but he and his company are all in.
“We’ve got our foot on the accelerator like crazy. We’ve got a lot of programmers working. We’re building boats and demonstrating them. We’re planting seeds and watering and fertilizing them like mad demons,” he gushes.
“Ask me in about a decade, then you’ll be able to say ‘that Thomas Chance guy was really stupid or he was a genius,’” he says. “It’ll be one of the two.”