Ocean research windfall makes landfall on the Cape

September 13, 2011 - via Cape Cod Times

On a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution dock, engineer Bob Elder prepares a REMUS 6000 autonomous underwater vehicle for testing. Hydroid, based in Pocasset, has received a $1 million contract to modify its REMUS 6000s so they may be used in the Ocean Observatories Initiative.                                        WHOI

WOODS HOLE — The Ocean Observatories Initiative is a $100 million, 30-year project that intends to explore the scientific mysteries of the world's oceans. As it works towards that goal, however, the OOI is also starting to have a more land-bound effect: By contracting with local businesses, the project is providing an economic boost to the region and the state. "We estimate, right now, just based on the work that's already underway, that there are close to 140 companies that have in some way, shape or form benefited directly from the work that is underway at WHOI," said Patrick Larkin, deputy director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which has helped provide funding for the OOI. "None of us can even begin to imagine what kind of spin-offs this might represent."

In 2007, the National Science Foundation gave the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution a $100 million grant to lead the construction of the underwater equipment that is the core of the project. "The goal is to put in place the infrastructure to enable making observations continuously in the ocean over a long period of time," said Rob Munier, WHOI's vice president for marine facilities and operations. The project is now in the early stages of the construction phase, he said.

Teledyne Webb and Hydroid

The infrastructure will include moorings in several locations and underwater vehicles that can be deployed from these arrays to collect data about the surrounding waters, he said. And these vehicles are being designed by local marine technologies companies Hydroid and Teledyne Webb Research.

Pocasset-based Hydroid received a $1 million contract to modify its standard REMUS 600 autonomous underwater vehicle to meet the OOI specifications, said Duane Fotheringham, the company's vice president of operations.

Typically, he said, the REMUS 600 goes out on 24-hour missions and then returns to the ship from which it was deployed. The vehicles for the OOI will need to be able to conduct longer missions — up to 50 hours — then returning to an underwater dock to recharge. "Staying on the sea floor for 120 days is one of the new aspects of this contract," Fotheringham said. "That requires a lot of thought about corrosion and befouling and reliability."

Hydroid has been expanding significantly over the past year, he said, increasing the staff from 64 to 80. Though this growth cannot be attributed entirely to the company's work with the OOI, the project "adds and contributes to the growth and creation of jobs."

Teledyne Webb Research, located in East Falmouth, was awarded a $261,000 grant to adapt its underwater glider vehicles for use in the OOI. "We've got orders in to develop coastal and global gliders," Munier said. "They require certain amount of tweaking from the off-the-shelf vehicles that they build."

In both cases, after the vehicle designs are completed, the OOI will, most likely, place orders for the equipment, sending yet more money to the local tech companies. "Once the design is vetted and approved then there will be an order for vehicles," Munier said.

Dozens of other Massachusetts companies have also received smaller orders as a result of the OOI, Larkin said.
"There's a supply chain of work attached to just building the infrastructure," he said. The economic impact of the project, however, is not just limited to money flowing to local companies, said Hauke Kite-Powell, a research specialist for the Marine Policy Center at WHOI. He has studied the economic impact of more commercially oriented ocean observing systems, and points out that the information gathered can help the shipping, boating and fishing industries become more efficient and improve their bottom lines.

The OOI installations are a little different, but still stands to create this kind of economic benefit, he said. "They are not primarily designed to provide information to commercial users," Kite-Powell said. "So the economic benefits "» are likely to be realized over longer term and they're less predictable by their nature." This longer timeframe, however, does not mean that the effects are less important, he said. "It's likely that marine resources will play an increasingly important role in the future," he said. "Improving our understanding of how the different parts of the marine ecosystem interact with other parts of the global ecosystem is of great long-term importance."

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Author:Sarah Shemkus