DARTMOUTH — Don’t look now, but you are surrounded by robots. In the air, under the water, maybe crawling around your living room floor. And many of those robots call this area home. Some of them were born and bred in Fall River. “We are strategically placed, with the Naval Undersea Center, Woods Hole and our own research college,” said Ramprasad Balasubramanian, associate dean of the college of engineering at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “This is a growing industry. I see a huge opportunity for growth in this area.”
Two local companies grew out of marine robotics programs that were fostered, in part, by the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport and UMass Dartmouth.
Aquabotix, which builds a small submarine equipped with a video camera, and Ocean Server, which builds a preprogramed underwater craft, both grew out of the Advanced Technology and Manufacturing Center that UMass Dartmouth runs at 151 Martine St., Fall River.
Aquabotix has since moved into larger quarters at Commonwealth Landing, 1082 Davol St., Fall River. It is developing products that have attracted companies, including the Navy. “Often what happens in this industry is that the military invests in innovative engineering,” Balasubramanian said. “A lot of the byproducts of research for the military become products that solve everyday problems.” Microwave ovens, smart washing machines and more efficient refrigerators are all products that came out of research for the military, Balasubramanian said.
Locally, the emphasis is on engineering to go out on the water, he added.
“The Navy has been exploring the development of smaller and more lightweight underwater vehicles,” he said. “Ocean Server, at the ATMC, has been making underwater vehicles for some time. Aquabotix has joined them.
“It is not simply about the vehicle. The autonomy of the vehicle is dependent on what it can sense in the environment. Companies developing sensors for these vehicles are popping up all over the place locally.”
Examples are Bluefin Robots in Quincy, which makes unmanned submarines; iRobot based in Boston, which makes the Roomba vacuum cleaner and an automatic pool cleaner; Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog Robots, which can carry heavy weights up mountains, through snow or over ice; and several smaller companies making robots for medical uses.
Durval Tavares, the founder of Aquabotix, worked at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center for more than a decade. With the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Navy station, UMass Dartmouth and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute all nearby, there are a lot of engineers, mechanics, marine experts and designers in the area, Tavares said. The area also has a lot of skilled, small manufacturing companies to help new companies grow, he said.
“Our strength, locally, is in the development of underwater vehicles,” Balasubramanian said. “The military has needs, and they finance the search for solutions. We are in a good strategic position to take advantage of that.”
|Author:||Kevin P. O'Connor|