Image credit: Scoutbots

Image credit: Scoutbots

“Sooner or later, we will have to recognise that the Earth has rights, too, to live without pollution. What mankind must know is that human beings cannot live without Mother Earth, but the planet can live without humans.” –Evo Morales

It is fitting that the Founder of Scoutbots, a Hong Kong-based startup founded in 2013 building ‘open hardware shape-shifting sailing robots to collect ocean data and transport cleanup equipment’, has just the right personal qualities to make it happen.

Half Japanese, half French, the humble but quietly determined Cesar Harada draws inspiration and strength from his intimate connection to nature and the ocean since childhood.

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“The big picture is to reconcile people with nature using technology. The way we’re doing this is to develop technologies to go out there in the ocean and collect data in a more efficient way — and hopefully one day to clean the ocean and protect it from over-fishing, climate change, radioactivity, plastic waste, etc.” Harada told e27.

Coming from a Shinto background and growing up near the ocean, an appreciation for nature is hardcoded into Harada’s DNA. It is also fitting that Harada can act as a bridge between the East and West, because a serious environmental initiative like this that could one day help clean up our oceans on a large scale requires truly global participation. One man cannot do it alone.

Harada spoke at TED in 2012 on the progress Scoutbots had made at the time, and also more recently was named one of the three champions at the StartmeupHK Week in Hong Kong last month where he and his team are based.

“Scoutbots is the company and Protei is its most well-known technology. Scoutbots is about exploring and protecting the ocean with open source technology. Protei is the open hardware, shape-shifting sailing robot. It is a new type of unmanned boat, and the hull is shifting. It provides better steering capability, more energy efficiency, stability, manoeuvrability, and many new properties when it comes to sailing,” he said.

Scoutbots currently builds three-meter unmanned boats that are capable of pulling 25 meters of oil-absorbent material during oil spills, but has orders to begin work on much larger boats in 2015. The company relies entirely on wind power but captures the wind in far more efficient ways than traditional models thanks to the hull-shifting technology.

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The ocean accounts for 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface, captures most of its sunlight, and is responsible for regulating climate. But overfishing has seen about 90 per cent of our large fishes wiped out, and an estimated 80 per cent of the ocean has plastic waste in it.

The Inter-Pacific has increased radioactivity levels because of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Harada believes that a number of other factors are indicating we are not taking good care of our oceans, and that can lead to disastrous consequences.

Smaller boats by Scoutbots can cost just a few hundred dollars, with larger models looking to be introduced next year predicted to come in at between US$10,000 to US$20,000 each. In the longer term, the technology could even be used to build large cargo ships.

As a platform technology — like the underlying technology of a car — there are many potential applications, with academic institutions or businesses able to tailor it to their specific needs. Others are interested in buying Scoutbots products simply to study soft-robotics technology.

The business model is going to comprise of four elements: hardware, software, data and data analytics. Harada revealed that one of Skype’s Co-founders has recently committed an undisclosed seed investment in the startup, with the round expected to close in the coming weeks.

But profit is at the bottom of the list of priorities for Harada and the company. Most precious to him is the environmental aspect.

“I have a strong connection with the ocean. I was born in the south of France… and pretty much grew up in love with the ocean. My Japanese [side of] my family is from a Shinto background, so the religion is nature essentially. We see the elements as god, we see the winds and the waves as closest to what the Christians would see as God,” Harada said.

“I’m not saying I’m a religious person, I’m just saying I have a personal relationship with the ocean and that motivates my work. I would say it’s a cultural and psychological driver rather than business or strategical that affects how I make decisions every day,” he added.

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