Making It Work: Ocean of possibilities for underwater data collection company

Louth-based XOcean aims to create 40 jobs after founder says its unmanned vessels are proving popular with global clients in the offshore wind sector

James Ives founded XOcean four years ago

For James Ives, the founder of XOcean, 2021 will be a year of expansion. The Louth company will create about 40 jobs over the next six months in response to rising demand from clients in the offshore wind sector worldwide.

Ives founded the ocean data collection company four years ago, and already employs 47 people at its headquarters in Carlingford and at a British office in Oxfordshire.

The 47-year-old Londoner said XOcean was also in the process of establishing a Canadian base in Nova Scotia.

“We’re in a growth phase right now. We’ve just hired our 47th staff member. Six months from now, we expect to be up to 85 or 90 people,” he said.

“Probably the biggest growth area for us is offshore wind. At this stage, we’ve had our unmanned data collection vessels operating on more than a dozen offshore wind farms around Europe.

“We’re working with SSE Renewables and Innogy SE, companies like that, and we have new contracts close to sign-off that will take us into the offshore wind sector in Asia-Pacific for the first time.”

XOcean has developed an unmanned surface vessel (USV) that can collect marine data for clients in the oil, gas and renewable energy sector, as well as for survey companies and government agencies.

About the size of a small car, the catamaran-style XO-450 vessel is controlled remotely over a web portal via satellite. It is fitted with a thermal imaging camera and sensor-mounting sonar post.

“There are really three key benefits to using an unmanned vessel like the XO-450 to collect ocean data,” Ives said.

“The first is safety, removing the need for people to be offshore and the risks that go with that, and the second is environmental as it reduces carbon emissions.”

The third benefit is cost reduction, Ives said. An unmanned vessel is cheaper to operate than the traditional crewed alternative.

“What we’re finding now is that the environmental benefit is becoming increasingly important to clients across the board. Everyone in the marine sector is more aware of the need to reduce carbon emissions,” he said.

“The emissions produced by our USV are 1,000th of the amount generated by conventional survey vessels. It’s a huge difference and a big selling point for our clients.”

These clients include BP, Shell, Total Energy, Sea Drill, DeepOcean and the Canadian Hydrographic Service.

“It would be wrong to say that we haven’t been affected by the pandemic. Everybody has to some extent. However, what we have seen in our sector is the emergence of new remote ways of doing things, and that’s something we were well-positioned for,” Ives said.

“We completed a project at the height of the first lockdown for Shell in Norway and not a single member of our team needed to step foot in the country. We sent the vessel by freight and, when it was in situ, our operators controlled it from here in Ireland.

“We had a team in the UK logged into the vessel doing their bit. We had people from Shell online from Norway and Houston, Texas. The pandemic has highlighted for us the opportunities offered by remote systems.”

Among the 40 or so jobs XOcean will create over the next six months will be roles for marine pilots, surveyors, project managers and technicians.

“Our biggest growth jobs-wise is in the area of USV pilots. These are mariners, people with marine qualifications, such as captains and first mates. They’re effectively piloting the vessel remotely from home,” Ives said.

“Then we have surveyors, again working from home, looking at the quality of the data that’s being collected and ensuring it’s to standard. We also need support people, like project managers, project engineers, technicians.

“Pretty much everyone is working remotely at the moment with the exception of a small team of technicians at our workshop in Carlingford whose job it is to maintain our USVs.”

XOcean’s current expansion has been driven in part by a €7.9 million funding round, which closed in late 2019.

“That financing has really allowed us to internationalise the business,” Ives said.

“We were focused mainly on the EU initially, but we’ve grown a lot since, completing projects everywhere from Trinidad to the Gulf of Mexico, and from Canada and the US to Aruba and the Caribbean.”

XOcean is a client of Enterprise Ireland, the state agency. Ives founded the company in 2017 following a 12-year stint as chief executive at OpenHydro, the tidal energy company.