Entrepreneurs from around the world gathered at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution this week to hear about and discuss marine robotics and autonomous underwater vehicles.

They will have greater access to facilities and technical resources at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, helping them test their prototypes and accelerate their pace to market, thanks to a $200,000 state grant announced yesterday, Thursday, July 18, at WHOI’s fifth annual entrepreneur forum.

Carolyn A. Kirk, former Gloucester mayor and executive director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, or MassTech, presented the grant to James G. Bellingham, founding director of WHOI’s Center for Marine Robotics, at the Redfield Auditorium during the two-day forum Wednesday and yesterday, July 17 and 18.

The grant, which came from MassTech’s Innovation Institute’s collaborative research match grant program, is intended to enhance access by startups and innovators to WHOI facilities such as the pressure test facility, DunkWorks prototyping lab and Martha’s Vineyard Coastal Observatory.

“We’re excited to help homegrown marine tech companies access these stellar facilities,” Ms. Kirk said. “Today’s award adds a critical element that will help WHOI and the Center for Marine Robotics engage entrepreneurs directly, giving these early-phase marine technology startups the ability to test, refine and grow their innovative products.”

Access to test facilities, engineers and operators is crucial to product development for small Massachusetts companies, MassTech wrote in a statement.

“Making these specialized resources available on a flexible, non-ownership basis is a documented need identified by WHOI during the launch and operation of the DunkWorks rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing facility, which opened in July 2017 following a $5 million dollar MassTech R&D infrastructure grant,” the statement said.

“We are an ocean nation, but our ability to work at sea has always been limited by the risks to humans. In collaboration with MassTech, the Center for Marine Robotics is creating the next generation of robot systems that will let us advance how humans understand, use and care for the ocean,” Dr. Bellingham said.

MassTech is finalizing the contract with WHOI, and the funding details will be made public in the near future, Ms. Kirk said.

The Future Of Ocean Innovation

The two-day forum brought together 150 attendees from around the world to discuss topics in marine innovation. Dr. Bellingham moderated the keynote panel yesterday, which featured Ms. Kirk; Thomas B. Curtin, a senior fellow at the Institute for Adaptive Systems and a senior principal research scientist at the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington; and Christine H. Fox, assistant director for policy and analysis at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

Before and after the panel discussion, attendees took part in exhibits and in-water demonstrations of new technology at the WHOI’s Islin Marine Facility. Companies demonstrating their prototypes dockside yesterday included Teledyne Webb Research from North Falmouth and L3 Technologies.

For his leadership and support of research in the marine robotics field, in particular his work with the US Navy’s Office of Naval Research, Dr. Curtin received WHOI’s DunkWorks innovators award for 2019.

“Many of you in this room might have started your careers on projects that Tom funded and managed. He has cast a very wide shadow in our field,” Dr. Bellingham said.

During his keynote presentation, Dr. Curtin shared a complicated-looking systems dynamics model he created as part of his thesis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

He spoke about the challenges of taking advantage of economies of scale in production methods in a niche market such as marine robotics.

“Innovation itself does not scale well because it is a contact sport,” he said. “It is very sensitive to feedback loops from the investor, the engineer and the user or the scientist. Those people have to interact regularly for anything to come out of the company and for decisions to be made. You have to keep those feedback mechanisms very much alive and very frequent because there’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot of unexpected things happen.”

Companies must invest in research to give themselves options to remain competitive and deal with risk, Dr. Curtin said.

“Don’t skimp on your research budget,” he said.

One way to take advantage of economies of scale in the marine robotics and autonomous underwater vehicles markets is to incorporate components that were developed for larger markets and are therefore less expensive per unit, Dr. Curtin added.

During her keynote presentation, Ms. Fox, who served as the Acting US Deputy Secretary of Defense from December 2013 to May 2014, spoke about the national security implications of marine robotics as it evolves toward more sophisticated levels of autonomy and artificial intelligence.

She noted that the Russian navy is investing heavily in submarine technology to explore the Arctic seabed and to study the physics and biology of deep-water and extreme environments such as the ocean’s “twilight zone”—a layer of water that stretches around the globe and lies 650 to 3,300 feet below the ocean surface, just beyond the reach of sunlight.

“There may be up to 1 million undiscovered species in the ‘twilight zone,’” Ms. Fox said, noting that the US needs new marine technology investments to keep pace with its adversaries and to understand the ocean more fully.

Also, developing and protecting vulnerable undersea cable infrastructure using marine robotics is critical to global security, economics and communications, she said.

“We are dependent on that important cable infrastructure, which lies on the seabed and is otherwise inaccessible,” she said.

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