Deep Dive

Deep Dive

Phillip Rhyner ’07

In his dreams, he’s in the ocean.

Rhyner, an ocean engineer in California, has a side project that’s taking over his sleep—and much of his waking life. His small company, Orca Robotics, is one of 21 semifinalists for the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, a $7 million global engineering competition for autonomous ocean exploration.

“I go to sleep and wake up with it running through my head,” says Rhyner. “The design constantly evolves; you can’t shut it off.”

His underwater drone must move swiftly and at great depths, and relay high-resolution data in real time. This October, the first physical test will launch in Puerto Rico, culling the field to ten teams that will split an initial prize of $1 million.

It’s not the first time the Narragansett, R.I., native has gone deep: his remotely operated, submersible sub-dredge searched for gold on the Alaskan sea floor in the Discovery Channel show, “Bering Sea Gold.” But XPRIZE, with its grand dream of a new era of ocean exploration—and its enormous top prize of $4 million—is a game changer.

Rhyner and his wife put their retirement savings into the drone, while family members are helping source aluminum and the powerful piezoelectric crystal he’ll need for his transducer. At URI’s Bay Campus, students will help test the transducer this summer. “I’m proud to add the University as a member of the team,” Rhyner says. “My support system helps me stay focused. Yes, we’re eating less steak and more ramen, but it’s easy to sacrifice when I’m thinking, ‘I need that money for batteries.’ ”