Apama: A Robot That Sews Nets Underwater to Support the Growing Aquaculture Industry 

Heather Miller Heather Miller October 18, 2023

3 min read

Take a detailed look at Southern Ocean Subsea’s design process for Apama, from prototyping with Autodesk Fusion to planned commercial release.

Southern Ocean Subsea (SOSub) was first founded in 2017 to perform maintenance and repairs on underwater robotic systems for the rapidly growing aquaculture industry. Over the next couple of years, Kelsey Treloar, co-managing director at SOSub, started noticing the challenges many marine aquaculture farms were facing as they increasingly relied on ROVs for underwater inspections.  

Once ROVs spotted a potential issue, such as torn nets, a diver would be deployed to go down and stitch it up. But many farms were becoming larger and going further out to sea at deeper depths, making it more difficult, expensive, or even impossible for divers to reach.  

Treloar came up with an ingenious solution: an underwater, net-repairing, sewing robot. After an incredible amount of prototyping and design, Apama, named after the Australian giant cuttlefish, is now getting closer to reality. Even the Australian government has taken notice of the product’s potential with a $1 million (AUD) grant to help commercialize it.  

Designing a ROV from scratch

With just a small team, SOSub embarked on the design and prototyping of Apama. Originally, they were going to design an attachment that simply bolted onto any ROV. Through their research, the team discovered it was difficult to find an ROV that could handle it. So, they went back to the drawing board to design an entire ROV from scratch with a bespoke feature of plier-like extensions that could sew and weave material into the net. 

Using Autodesk Fusion and Autodesk Inventor, they could easily move through design rounds. “Fusion is key to everything we do,” Treloar says. “We can check the geometry to work everything out ahead of time.” 

“When I see other CAD packages or 2D sketches, I realize that I’ve been kind of spoiled. I started with Fusion, and I’m so used to making everything as a 3D model. When I tried other programs, I really struggled because there were so many different files on the computer. Fusion always has your files sorted in the cloud. The cloud component is one of the coolest parts about it.”

—Kelsey Treloar, Co-Director, Southern Ocean Subsea 

Protoyping with Autodesk Fusion and Formlabs

Prototyping was a make-or-break part of Apama’s development. SOSub relied on CNC machining and 3D printing to bring its prototypes to life, including a Formlabs printer and a commercial resin printer. Each part required rigorous testing due to the underwater element. Over the course of a couple of years, they created eight different prototypes of Apama—all without any significant financial investments. 

“We used Fusion to design our actuators and then resin printed them to run underwater in depths ranging from three to 500 meters,” Treloar says. “We were able to get watertight seals—straight off the printer and into the water. For our very first prototype, most of the parts were 3D printed. We ran it for over five months in the field, and it never failed. There weren’t any issues with leaks or material breaking down or wearing out.” 

Collaboration is also a core component of their success. The SOSub team now includes eight employees who work in Fusion every day. According to Treloar, external collaboration is equally as important for other clients.   

“The collaboration side of Fusion is fantastic,” Treloar says. “We can share designs with clients without needing to send a .stp file or anything like that. We can make any changes, modify, and edit quickly.” 

Moving forward to the commercial market

SOSub is starting the next phase of its journey for Apama. “When the grant kicked in, we could really go full on to rationalize its robustness and test everything in the field and with clients,” Treloar says. “Now, we’re at the point where the product is here and works. It does everything it needs to do.” 

For Treloar, it turns out that learning the intricacies of going to market and manufacturing is more complex than creating an underwater robot. 

“It’s a big undertaking, and we’re using Fusion Manage with Upchain because it’s best suited for us,” he says. “We’re learning a lot. When discovering how to use enterprise resource planning or dealing with the supply chain, the design process does look like the easy part sometimes. We can’t wait to see Apama out in the world.” 

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