New WHOI Test Facility Aims to Boost Mass. Marine Robotics Sector

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s (WHOI) Center for Marine Robotics kicked off its 4th Annual Entrepreneur Showcase and Leadership Forum on July 23, with the official opening of a new pressure test facility that will help researchers and companies better develop innovative marine technologies.

The new facility will allow WHOI to replicate the pressure of the deep ocean in an onshore facility which will more than triple the project capacity of its existing manually-operated system, allow for unattended 24/7 operations, and expand the ability of researchers and private firms to test their marine robotics and sensor systems.

2 DSC7027The pressure test facility is the second piece of infrastructure constructed under a $5 million dollar award to the WHOI’s Center for Marine Robotics from the Commonwealth’s Collaborative Research and Development Matching Grant Program, an effort managed by the Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MassTech). WHOI executives were joined at the launch event by Damon Cox, Assistant Secretary of Technology, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship, who chairs MassTech’s Board of Directors. Cox highlighted the impact that the facility will have on Massachusetts startups in the marine robotics sector and the opportunities it presents for increased training for students, researchers, and growing companies.

“WHOI is a world-class research institution that has helped make Massachusetts a national leader in marine robotics development and ocean discovery,” stated Cox. “The launch of this new R&D test facility will help accelerate WHOI’s ability to support entrepreneurs, small and medium-sized businesses, and established marine robotics technologies, fueling innovation and growth, helping to keep Massachusetts at the forefront of this sector.”

The new facility replaces an aging 50-year old pressure test vessel, incorporating increased precision, programmable, computer-aided controls, and safety. This cutting-edge technology allows WHOI researchers and support staff to subject human-produced components to the extreme pressures found in a deep-sea environment, stress testing new materials, and product design engineering solutions. These advances will provide entrepreneurs and innovators the ability to stress test components more efficiently and with more precision, allowing them to identify the stress limits of their technologies more easily and efficiently.

“Recent advances in marine robotics are transforming our ability to access the ocean,” said James Bellingham, director of the Center for Marine Robotics at WHOI. “Scientists, industry, and the military are taking advantage of the new robotic capabilities, fostering the growth of a new marine industry in New England.” “The matching investments made by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative to WHOI’s Robots to the Sea Program enable us to accelerate progress, providing powerful test facilities to support our growing Blue Economy and cementing our regional strengths,” Bellingham added.

The pressure test vessel is located on WHOI’s Village Campus, a short walk from DunkWorks, a rapid prototype and additive manufacturing facility launched in July 2017 which is the first of four projects supported under the Commonwealth’s R&D grant.

The launch of the new facility kicked off the two-day Entrepreneur Showcase & Leadership Forum hosted by WHOI’s Center for Marine Robotics, an event which will feature in-water demos from several Massachusetts-based technology companies, as well as panels featuring robotics and autonomy thought leaders discussing the conference theme of “Disruptive and Disrupting”.

3 DSC7218The grant to WHOI’s Center for Marine Robotics is one of six awards made by the Innovation Institute at MassTech as part of the Collaborative R&D Grant program, which makes high-impact capital awards in promising areas of technology innovation. The program was established in 2012, with a $50 million in capital authorization, to spur additional research and development activity in regions of the Commonwealth. The Baker-Polito Administration secured an additional $15 million in capital authorization through the 2016 economic development legislation that came out of the Massachusetts legislature.

“It is exciting to see WHOI complete the second phase of the Center for Marine Robotics infrastructure investment,” said State Representative David T. Vieira (R- East Falmouth). “As I said when this grant was announced a few years ago, in my life we have never placed a man on the moon, but we have reached new depths in ocean exploration due to the vision and talent of those working at, and affiliated with, WHOI. Thanks to the Mass. Technology Collaborative for continuing your commitment to the project and to Director Bellingham for your steadfast leadership.”

“Government should be a leader in supporting science, innovation, and discovery and this $5 million dollar state grant underscores our state’s commitment to advancing innovative technologies,” said State Representative Dylan Fernandes (D-Falmouth). “WHOI is a world renowned research institution right here in our district and this grant ensures that the Institution will continue to be at the vanguard of scientific innovation.”

According to “The Massachusetts Robotics Cluster” report sponsored by MassTech and published by ABI Research, global revenue for unmanned underwater vehicles was $2.2 billion in 2015, but is expected to grow to $4.6 billion by 2020. Cape Cod and the South Coast of Massachusetts are hotbeds for the development of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), as the Commonwealth is home to numerous industry leading companies, including Bluefin Robotics in Quincy, Hydroid in Pocasset, and McLane Research Laboratories in Falmouth.

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