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Orca-Tech’s autonomous watercraft are clearing trash out of waterways | Inside China’s Startups

Written by Simin Zhang Published on     4 mins read

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Orca’s self-driving boats are mapping the country’s urban rivers, lakes, and reservoirs.

Xi’an-based Orca-Tech, a startup that builds autonomous aquatic vehicles, did something that no other startup has ever accomplished. In March, Orca released the first multi-sensor dataset to assist unmanned surface vehicles in inland waterways. The company’s marketing manager, Xie Xiao, told KrASIA that more than 100 research institutes and companies have already requested access to the dataset. The data was collected from the company’s key products—self-driving boats used for cleaning water waste.

The idea of building a waste collecting boat was first conceived as a university project in 2016 led by several postgraduate students at China’s Northwestern Polytechnical University—Zhu Jiannan, Cheng Yuwei, Chi Yuhao, and Yu Menling. At the time, AI technology for boats was still a relatively untapped frontier in China.

The team developed its first prototype in 2017 and won many entrepreneurship competitions thereafter. Then, the inventors established Orca in 2018. After two years of R&D and upgrades, Orca developed three products, including two types of unmanned boats that specialize in collecting garbage in waterways: the smaller-sized SMURF, which is designed to sail in confined space and tight angles, and the larger TITAN, that operates in wider rivers and ports. To provide a sense of their scale, SMURF measures about 2.5 m long, 1.6 m wide, and 1.0 m tall.

The waste collecting boats feature two long arms on the front, which scoop up and collect garbage in a wire basket within the craft’s hull. It is powered by two batteries and can run continuously for eight hours. When the boat detects a low charge, or when the trash is full, it automatically returns to a charging station at the shore, where the waste is emptied and sorted. No humans need to control any part of the process.

The boat comes in both remote-controlled and autonomous models. It employs a range of technologies such as millimeter-wave radar, object recognition technology, AI, and internet of things, allowing for waste identification, water surroundings analysis, and collision avoidance.

It can carry 20–50 kg of trash and is about seven times as efficient as a human cleaner—clearing waste from one acre of water surface takes only 25 minutes. It has the advantage of being able to operate in bad weather and rough water conditions, when human cleaners would stay ashore. According to the company, the cost of using craft built by Orca is only one-third of human labor.

The company’s third model, ELFIN, is fitted with up to 26 sensors, and is designed specifically for water inspection and patrol missions. It is a learning machine continually collecting data about water quality. ELFIN can conduct investigations into sources of pollution and illegal wastewater dumping, producing insights for intervention and striking at the root of water pollution.

Orca-Tech’s watercraft logs data about its surroundings in real time. Courtesy of Orca-Tech.

The combination of self-driving and environmental protection creates value both on the business side, as well as for society.

Xie, Orca’s marketing manager and spokesperson, told KrASIA that the products are mainly used in urban waters—rivers, artificial lakes, and reservoirs. So far, Orca has sold more than 100 of its autonomous watercraft to governments and enterprise customers, including companies like Yingfeng Environment, which provides environmental protection solutions, and major residential real estate developer Vanke. Orca’s craft have covered an accumulated 400,000 kilometers, giving the firm a wealth of data to work with.

Orca has caught the interest of some of China’s biggest venture capitalists. Among them are Brizan Ventures, Turing Ventures, Hong Kong X Technology Fund, Institute for Interdisciplinary Information Core Technology, Shenzhen Xiaoxi Holdings, and even an American entrant, the Plug and Play Tech Center. With the completion of a USD 1.5 million Series A financing round last August, the company is now valued at more than RMB 100 million (USD 15.5 million).

Orca prides itself in its strong research capabilities. The team receives technical guidance from two recipients of the Turing Award—the famous “Nobel Prize for Computing”—and is working closely with Tsinghua University’s Intelligent Sensing Laboratory. It now employs about 70 core team members—most of whom are postgraduates or Ph.D. students from Northwestern Polytechnical University and Tsinghua University.

There are other firms in China working in similar directions as Orca. Zhuhai-based Yun Zhou Intelligent Technology Company, founded in 2010, has been applying autonomous boats for environmental protection purposes, ocean surveys, rescue missions, and cargo shipping. It is now working on unmanned vessels for military applications in collaboration with the Zhuhai government.

Orca-Tech’s SMURF river-cleaning water vessel. Courtesy of Orca-Tech.

Even with advanced developments, the industry is still in its early stages. Water pollution control is a crucial matter. In the past decade, China has been desperate to clean up its rivers and waterways, which are plagued with pollution. Statistics provided by China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment in 2018 revealed that an average of 24 kg of floating trash was found in every 1,000 sq m of surface water.

The Chinese government is solving this problem by appointing “river chiefs”—high-ranking officials put in charge of one waterway to tackle pollution more effectively. And targets are being set to reduce coastal pollution as part of China’s “ecological red line” policy. Local governments are keen to encourage Chinese companies to offer infrastructure and data-driven solutions for cleaning up polluted waters.

Orca co-founder and CEO Zhu Jiannan said in an interview with state media outlet CNR News last October that the company is seeking more collaborations with local governments to implement its cleaning and inspection craft in environmental programs. Orca’s short-term focus will still be on water environment protection.

Zhu said cleaning waterways is a high-frequency application, which creates opportunities to accumulate huge amounts of data about China’s inland waterways. This data provides the foundation for further innovations.

For now, Orca has no plans to head out into the open ocean, but it is looking at new use cases for self-driving boats. Someday in the near future, it may develop autonomous transportation that moves people and goods across water.

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This article is part of KrASIA’s “Inside China’s Startups” series, where the writers of KrASIA speak with founders of tech companies in the country.

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