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Energy & Green Business

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Solana Beach company improves oil-spill analysis

Friday, January 7, 2011 at 10:10 a.m.

Ocean Imaging owner Jan Svejkovsky sits with technology used to survey last year's BP oil spill.

Charlie Neuman

Ocean Imaging owner Jan Svejkovsky sits with technology used to survey last year's BP oil spill.

Ocean Imaging owner Jan Svejkovsky sits with technology used to survey last year's BP oil spill.

Please click to enlarge

Surveyors have historically judged oil spills solely by their appearance, a subjective approach that can lead to misdirected rescue efforts and wasted government money.

Ocean Imaging, a company in Solana Beach, has developed technology that takes some of the guesswork out of the job. One day, it might even be used for an emergency off the coast of San Diego County.

Ocean Imaging is the developer of an aerial system — made up of a multispectral camera, a thermal camera and a global-positioning system — that does what the naked eye can’t. It can precisely map the thickness of oil slicks almost in real time, something that has eluded surveyors for decades.

Traditionally, oil-spill surveyors have determined thickness by color: Darker likely means the area is thicker and worth skimming, while a rainbow sheen means the oil is too thin for recovery.

“This mapping technology improves spill response efficiency dramatically,” said John McCamman, director of the state Department of Fish and Game, which helped develop the system. “The data gathered allows responders to direct resources like skimmers to the areas of a spill where they will have the greatest impact on cleanup.”

Ocean Imaging owner Jan Svejkovsky, whose technology was used during last year’s massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico, recently won honors from the U.S. Department of the Interior with Judd Muskat at the state game agency for their work at the center of the spill’s cleanup efforts.

The Cooperative Conservation award, handed out to Svejkovsky and Muskat last month, recognizes innovation in preserving natural resources. Honorees across the country received the prestigious distinction in the spring.

Svejkovsky founded Ocean Imaging more than 20 years ago while working on his doctorate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California San Diego in La Jolla. As a student, he processed satellite data for sporting and commercial fishing fleets. Information included ocean temperature and color.

Svejkovsky, 52, spun his expertise into his current business, being “interested in fish and needing a job,” he said.

Ocean Imaging, a team of eight, acquires, processes and analyzes aerial and satellite environmental data. The company mainly monitors the ocean, coastal areas and wetlands. Projects include monitoring patterns in sewage and storm runoff for municipal governments.

Ocean Imaging has annual sales of about $1 million. In addition to working with corporate clients, the company often does grant-based research with universities and government agencies. That’s how the oil-spill mapping system was devised.

Ocean Imaging owner Jan Svejkovsky sits with technology used to survey last year's BP oil spill.

- Courtesy of Ocean Imaging

Unprocessed image taken by Ocean Imaging of the Gulf.

Ocean Imaging owner Jan Svejkovsky sits with technology used to survey last year's BP oil spill.

- Courtesy of Ocean Imaging

Processed image of the oil found in the Gulf, showing thicker and thinner areas.

The research and development for the original oil-mapping system cost about $1 million. Svejkovsky hopes to duplicate it at a smaller, more affordable scale. His ideal price range for future models is about $100,000 to $200,000, so that local and state agencies can afford it. (Read a research paper on the system here.)

For now, Ocean Imaging plans to contract its expertise and equipment to those in need, as it did during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

For three months, the Ocean Imaging crew surveyed the massive leak with two pilots provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

By 6 a.m. each day, the team flew from Mobile, Ala., with the mapping system. The equipment detailed the oil’s thickness and distribution while also judging if underwater dispersant was effective.

The data were sent electronically to oil-spill responders in Louisiana, Houston and Alabama. The information was used to direct resources to areas most in need of help.

“It was long (and) grueling, but it was rewarding because I was doing it for a bigger cause,” said Jamie Kum, one of the crew members. “That’s what kept me going.”

The oil-spill system was conceived about five years ago, with the help of federal funding.

The technology was first tested at a facility in New Jersey and used officially during a 2008 oil spill in the Santa Barbara Channel. Ocean Imaging mapped about 1,100 gallons of oil that spilled into the ocean.

It was used in a few more spills in California before Ocean Imaging tackled the spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“My hope is we’re considered for future spills, as they’re bound to happen,” Svejkovsky said.

Lily Leung: (619)293-1719;; Twitter @LilyShumLeung

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  • We drill from land, and octopie out to oil from the land based well head.
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