For FarSounder Inc., the Warwick-based marine electronics manufacturer specializing in sonar systems, success has been built upon its patented three-dimensional, forward-looking sonar technology, with its significant fields of view, ranging up to 1,000 meters with a single ping.
Prior to FarSounder’s entrance into the marketplace, few companies had found a solution to real-time obstacle avoidance at sea beyond reading the chart, company officials said.
“In locations where the information changes daily or cannot be charted at all, this method leaves a lot unknown. FarSounder recognized that a new sensor with a new technology had to be developed in order to visualize what depths of water and obstacles exist in the area, without the need to first traverse it,” company officials wrote in their 2010 Innovation Awards application, describing how FarSounder identified the market need for their innovative product.
The privately held company, co-founded in 2001 by Cheryl M. Zimmerman, president and CEO, and her son, Matthew J. Zimmerman, vice president of engineering, was nurtured in part by Rhode Island’s own nascent innovation-support infrastructure. FarSounder won the Rhode Island Business Plan Competition in 2002 and received early financing from the Slater Technology Fund.
Matthew Zimmerman – who graduated in 2001 from the University of Rhode Island with a bachelor’s degree in underwater engineering, as well as French and German – was a Providence Business News 2010 40 Under Forty honoree.
The company’s 2009 revenues grew by more than 20 percent over 2008, with exports to European and Asian shipbuilding industries accounting for about 50 percent of sales, according to company officials.
FarSounder contracts have included work on government projects in Australia, China and Japan.
Current users of FarSounder’s innovative technology include many of the world’s largest super-yachts and cruise ships, as well as a fleet of high-speed ferries owned the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority.
The company has secured four patents to date, with more pending, and has received more than $3 million in externally funded government research-and-development grants and projects.
How important is the development of FarSounder’s innovative technology? According to company officials, the technological advancements in its sonar acoustics will have “a revolutionary impact on the maritime industry,” similar to the way radar changed surface navigation 60 years ago and GPS changed it 20 years ago.
FarSounder says it plans to expand its markets to include ocean-resource management and fisheries, as well as navigation assistance for high-speed patrol boats.
It is working with a European organization to develop technology that would enable fishing boats to avoid “bycatch,” which are fish caught unintentionally by fishermen seeking other species.
In April, Farsounder received a $70,000 award from the U.S. Department of Defense for development of a new, high-speed sensor system to improve the safety and efficiency for the U.S. Navy’s manned, high-speed small boats.
“Our sonar works especially well in shallow waters,” Cheryl Zimmerman said, indicating that there might be possibilities to apply the technology to track oil spills in shallow areas. But the major potential markets for growth are focused on navigation security and fisheries, she said.
As an example of its creative thinking, FarSounder officials said the firm had taken sonar data and processed it with a hydrographic software suite used for many sea-bottom surveys. Initial results have been impressive, the company reported.
“We believe that this has the potential to become a major, new survey tool,” the company wrote in its Innovation Award application. “In addition to providing survey quality data, the system can still operate as a forward-looking navigation sonar,” adding to the safety of the survey vessel itself.
Cheryl Zimmerman stressed that the innovative approach to FarSounder’s business extends beyond the engineering and manufacturing process to the integration of the hardware with information technology systems and software, employing an intuitive user interface that improves ease of use.
The Farsounder mother-and-son team appear to work well together, complementing each other’s skill set. The younger Zimmerman, who is able to converse in German, French and Italian, credits his mentor at the University of Rhode Island – professor John Grandin – with helping to develop “my engineering skills with an international mindset.”
The elder Zimmerman cited her ability to listen to customers’ needs and wants, as well as to trust her instincts. She received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Tufts University, and before co-founding FarSounder, had two decades’ experience running businesses, including an engineering services company.
She’s also quick to credit her company’s “great track record in hiring and keeping employees,” and noted that FarSounder has attracted young talent from many of the local universities.
In advance of developing its revolutionary sonar product, Zimmerman said she interviewed ship captains to find out what they needed and wanted. The captains told her that they wanted an easy-to-understand graphic interface, enabling them to see obstacles, and then make decisions quickly. FarSounder’s products were then designed and engineered to meet those needs. •