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Underwater robotics company acquires St. Pete tech startup

Mark Parker

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Pennsylvania-based VideoRay's remotely operated underwater vehicles will now incorporate Blue Ring Imaging's mixed-reality software and innovative underwater cameras. Photo provided.

A 3D visualization and unmanned vehicle control systems startup was recently acquired after achieving new heights – or depths – at St. Petersburg’s Maritime and Defense Technology Hub.

Blue Ring Imaging will now operate under the VideoRay umbrella. The Pennsylvania-based underwater robotics company will utilize the local startup’s space at the Innovation District’s Hub as an applied research facility.

Casey Sapp, founder and CEO of Blue Ring, could not disclose the terms of his deal with Video Ray. “We would have been implementing our technology onto their vehicle,” Sapp said.

“It was just becoming very apparent that it was a ‘one plus one equals five’ by us deeply integrating with their fleet and then being able to serve their customers in a unique, differentiated way.”

Blue Ring’s specialized, 360-degree 3D cameras are custom-built according to the vehicle type and mission. Photo by Mark Parker.

VideoRay builds remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) for aquatic defense, first-responder and civil inspection applications. The U.S. Navy recently selected its Mission Specialist Defender robot for underwater mine detection and disposal operations.

Blue Ring develops mixed reality – a blend of virtual and physical environments – interfaces for underwater ROVs and their pilots. Its specialized, 360-degree 3D cameras are custom-built according to vehicle type and mission.

Sapp noted the companies share many of the same clients, typically in the national defense industry. Blue Ring’s customers include the Office of Naval Research, OceanX and Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

“We’re trying to solve a lot of the same problems,” Sapp added. “We’re coming from different angles on it.”

However, he said one specific client propelled the acquisition. Sapp explained that the U.S. Navy contract is a “program of record,” a long-term, lucrative production contract.

Blue Ring will now incorporate its OctoView user interface software into VideoRay’s unmanned vehicles. Sapp said the accompanying mixed-reality headsets enhance controls, and innovative cameras improve an ROV’s situational awareness and object detection capabilities.

Casey Sapp, founder and CEO of Blue Ring Imaging. Photo provided.

VideoRay has already delivered 4,000 vehicles worldwide, and Sapp believes his technology will increase utility for “a wider audience in a short amount of time.” He said his team is accelerating development “to get it out to their customers and fleet in 2024.”

Sapp incorporates his OctoView software into Oculus Quest 3 mixed reality headsets. An accompanying app utilizes vehicle sensors that allow users to operate a vehicle through the device.

Sapp is also integrating voice and touch controls. He said eye-tracking software “is on the horizon” and “definitely part of understanding human behavior to improve cognitive load and vehicle performance.”

“What’s going on in the Pacific is less people and more robots,” Sapp added. “The question is, what does that command-and-control interface look like? We believe mixed reality is a big, integral part of that.”

St. Petersburg

Sapp will remain at the Hub as VideoRay’s vice president of strategy and emerging technology. Local and global clients – including U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) personnel stationed at MacDill Air Force Base – will train at the waterfront site.

He said the company will expand its presence in St. Petersburg through VideoRay Labs. Sapp will oversee the recently launched division and hire additional team members to assist with its subsurface research and development operations.

He explained that company leadership toured the Hub and surrounding Innovation District and decided to “double down” on their investment. “There are very few places that have military, Coast Guard, academics and access to water all in the same place,” Sapp said.

“Defense technology is rapidly accelerating, rapidly growing and getting a lot of investments in St. Pete. I’m … one of the benefactors of that.”

Jake Easterling, Blue Ring Imaging’s former CTO, controls a remotely operated vehicle at the Hub through a Microsoft X Box controller. Easterling will assume a new position with VideoRay. Photo by Mark Parker.

Sapp, a native Floridian, developed the first 360-degree underwater 3D camera. He launched his first company in Hollywood before pivoting to defense applications and moving to San Diego.

Sapp moved back to Florida amid the pandemic and became one of the Hub’s first tenants. He said St. Petersburg is now on par with national defense technology hotspots and stressed that the Hub and local ecosystem were pivotal to growing Blue Ring.

“I think our acquisition is a telltale sign for what else is going to happen here in the future,” Sapp added, “of just bigger companies wanting more of a presence here and finding some of the leading-edge tech companies here.”

 

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