By Brenda Trainor 

Here on the 210 Foothill corridor, when we think of drones, normally we look to the skies not towards a faraway ocean. But one Monrovia entrepreneurial effort is building innovative drones that explore ocean waters powered by fluctuations in the sea’s temperature.  

Dr. Yi Chao, the founder and CEO of Seatrec, a company founded in 2012 and based in Monrovia, recently spoke at a MADIA Tech Launch meetup to share the evolving success story of this innovative technology. The company’s ocean drone technology is now poised for significant growth as it enters a new phase of manufacture and distribution. 

The ocean drones are powered to explore the ocean to gather data that can be used to measure water temperature, currents, and other conditions. Current methods use batteries to support such devices and when the power is up, the equipment falls to the ocean floor along with its toxic components. Seatrec devices use non-toxic materials to help solve this problem.  

The drones are floating cylinders with materials that expand and contract with temperature changes. This expansion results in pressure that can be captured and used to generate electricity to power its sensors, recorders, and transmitters. Seatrec is developing technologies to generate energy from both the solid-to-liquid and liquid-to-gas phase transitions of several substances.

The Seatrec story is an intriguing demonstration of scientific research developing into commercial applications, showing how the Monrovia economy benefits from the proximity of institutions like the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Dr. Chao, a Princeton PhD, did post-doctoral research at UCLA and then continued his scientific explorations working for NASA at JPL. Working on atmospheric and oceanographic projects, Chao and his team developed an autonomous ocean-going device using non-toxic materials and thermal energy. As the company simply states “we create electricity from temperature differences.”

The innovation was licensed by Caltech and Seatrec and formed in 2012 to continue developing ways to use this clean energy solution in commercial applications. Dr. Chao chose to establish the headquarters in Monrovia, and the company has received seed funding and ongoing research and financial support from a variety of technology investors as well as federal government grants and the defense industry, including multiple contracts from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) though a program of the U.S. Small Business Administration called SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research). The SBIR program is highly competitive and enables small businesses to explore their technological potential and provides the incentive to profit from its commercialization.

Seatrec has also been supported by the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, and Dr. Chao discussed how the support from that experience helps scientists succeed in a competitive commercial world with skills and ideas not normally used in academe and research laboratories.  

MADIA Tech Launch is a local nonprofit dedicated to promoting and supporting the local technology ecosystem and invites anyone with an interest in tech businesses to join their meetups or for discussions at their LinkedIn or Facebook pages. There are no individual membership dues.  

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