The difficult operation to save 12 boys and their football coach from a flooded Thailand cave last month had captivated people from around the world. As the effort was underway, US tech billionaire Elon Musk sent a kid-sized submarine, built by engineers from his firms, to help in the rescue mission. In the end, the boys were saved without the help of Musk’s miniature submarine, but the publicity helped highlight the potential role that such equipment can play in future missions.
In Hong Kong, a local startup, Im’s Laboratory, has been working on underwater robotics technology, such as unmanned underwater vehicles. The firm’s founder, Jacky Im, recently sat down with the Hong Kong Economic Journal, to share his robotic technology and innovation ideas.
Excerpts from the interview:
HKEJ: Elon Musk’s “kid-sized” submarine was not used in the Thai cave rescue. What do you think about it?
Im: The cave that the Thai football team was trapped was a dark and complex environment, where it is highly difficult to distinguish the exact location of the victims. In extreme circumstances like that, I think the rescuers may have different considerations and various solutions on hand.
I believe the industry will continue to improve the performance of the miniature submarines, say adding a sensor system which enables it to analyze the geographical information in extreme environments. With that feature, I think it can speed up the rescue process in future missions.
Q: How did you develop the interest in inventing unmanned underwater vehicles?
A: I had been keen on robotics since I was a child. I love to use various parts and components to assemble into robots. During my time at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), I participated in several local and international competitions on underwater vehicles, and won the championship in the “YDC Dare To Change Business Pitch Competition”.
The most memorable part of the competition was the Q&A session where my invention had been challenged by judges. But that also inspired me to develop different versions and features for my underwater vehicles, while enhancing our technical level.
Q: Can you introduce us your unmanned underwater vehicles in detail?
A: Yes, I have built a total of six prototypes. One of them is Dolphin, featuring a front camera for underwater shooting. And its built-in connection function enables it to transmit underwater images instantly. Its battery can be used for one hour on average, depending on the operating conditions.
How to balance flexibility and stability is a huge challenge in the development of unmanned underwater vehicles. Wireless connection does not perform well due to the underwater environment, which is one of the functions that we keep on improving.
Q: We know that you are currently pursuing a master’s degree at HKUST. Do you intend to start a career in academic research or are you planning to launch a commercial business related to unmanned underwater vehicles?
A: After winning the “YDC Dare to Change Business Pitch Competition,” we are recommended to join the “Incu-Tech” program of the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park, which offers incubatees financial aid and premises at its buildings with free or subsidized rental period.
We are still discussing among the team for now. As for me, I sincerely hope we can raise more funding in the future, which can be used to enhance the performance of our unmanned underwater vehicles, and put them on the market.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 2
Translation by Ben Ng
[Chinese version 中文版]
– Contact us at [email protected]