Inner Space Center

  • There is so much research going on in the state of Rhode Island that its Science & Technology Advisory Council (STAC) gives out annual research grants to research teams already working on projects to facilitate even more collaborative research. The goal is to give a boost to those projects that have the best shot at attracting significant follow-on funding from government agencies or commercial interest.
    STAC’s program is indicative of the depth and breadth of research underway across the state in its universities, businesses, defense and government laboratories, and of the potential lurking just beneath the surface for entrepreneurs and established companies to profit from technological advances.
    The scientific community here is constantly percolating with projects looking into all aspects of the marine sciences, producing reams of data that can answer questions, solve problems or inform business decisions involving virtually every aspect of ocean-going enterprise and equipment.
    But to solve problems, you need to be in the know. The best way to do that is to tap into the people who do know, or who at least can figure out what it is you need to know, and who can then help you exploit all that knowledge.
    And the best way to do that in in the subsea world is to team up with the experts at either the Naval Underwater Warfare Center (NUWC) or any one of the appropriate URI nationally recognized marine sciences departments or innovative “centers of excellence.”
     “There is a huge heritage of technology around Narragansett Bay, walking around in the heads of these brainy engineers who have worked on these projects over the years. When you have people like that, you get a lot of start-up companies,” said Jim Dodez, vice president of marketing and strategic planning for KVH Industries. He should know, KVH’s first product for the commercial maritime market was based on sonar buoy technology used to listen for Soviet subs that it licensed from Raytheon.  “We have the knowledge district for marine science and technology,” agreed Prof. Dwight Coleman, director URI’s Inner Space Center.
     “What we have to offer industry,” said Prof. Harold Vincent, a research professor in ocean engineering, and the director of the URI- NUWC Center of Excellence in Undersea Technology (CEUT), “is the strength of several decades of experience, and you multiple that by the number of people and you are talking hundreds of years of experience developing initial prototype instruments for deployment in the marine environment.” It’s not uncommon for marine scientists who can’t find the tool they need, to develop one from scratch, according to Vincent. But even failures are educational. “We may have tried to build something, and it failed, and we can share with some company the lessons learned.”
    There are plenty of lessons to be learned in Rhode Island, home to one of the oldest and most prestigious centers of marine sciences and oceanographic research in the country.
    Established 51 years ago, the Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) at URI is one of the nations largest. More than 80 students are currently enrolled - two-thirds in doctoral programs and one-third in master’s programs. Many traditionally end up working for NUWC in some capacity or another. Masters and PHD degrees are awarded in “the classical areas of oceanography” - biological, chemical, geological, and physical - as well as in archaeological oceanography, the specialty area of ocean explorer Dr. Bob Ballard. A “Blue MBA” is offered in conjunction with URI’s College of Business Administration.
    According to university figures, GSO researchers conduct more than 200 research projects, with a combined budget of approximately $30 million. Much of that funding comes from federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), among others.
    GSO works closely with the Department of Ocean Engineering, which is actually part of the Engineering Dept. In 1966, it established the first M.S. and Ph.D. Degree programs in Ocean Engineerings.

    Creating a hub of oceanographic operations
    Both schools are housed at the Narragansett Bay Campus, which provides continual access to the biggest laboratory on the planet – the ocean. That’s also where the GSO docks the Endeavor research vessel between voyages. Endeavor is owned by the National Science Foundation, but has been operated by the GSO for 30 years through more than 500 expeditions. The ship is part of the National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) of 22 government- and institutionally owned research vessels used to conduct federally funded ocean research. The GSO is contracted with UNOLS through 2014 to handle all scheduling of those ships.
    The coveted UNOLS duties dovetail nicely with another GSO innovation, the wildly successful Inner Space Lab (ISC), which was the brainchild of ocean archeologist Dr. Robert Ballard.
    Opened in 2009, the ISC is to ocean exploration what Houston is to the space shuttle. The ISC is a facility that establishes real-time connectivity – “telepresence” – between scientists onshore and remotely operated vehicles onboard research ships using satellite connections and Internet. The ships stream video back to the ISC lab, which repackages the images for dissemination to school systems and a network of scientists around the country.
    The goal is to broaden the reach of the activities of the ship by allowing more people to take part in the exploration programs, said Coleman, adding “From the ship perspective, you can only take so many people and you never know what you will find. You can’t bring all that expertise with you, so you need to be able to tap into a brain trust. It’s like having a fleet of scientist on call.”
    “Telepresence” has other practical applications. The U.S. Army, for example, uses that technology to hook in experts to help ID in real time, what’s seen at underwater munitions dumps. “It would be difficult to bring these people to the ships, but you can have networked people all over the world looking at a feed in real-time,” said Coleman.
    Another first for URI is the Center for Excellence in Underwater Technology, which represents NUWC’s first formal research sponsorship with a university. With $150,000 in seed money from the Navy, CEUT was tasked with developing dual-use technology for environmental protection and management, aquaculture, ocean energy systems, and port and harbor security, among other issues. Its first project was designing and building an undersea distributed network system.
    The cooperative agreement between URI and NUWC expired last January. While NUWC may rebid the contract this summer, the University is continuing on with the center.  Its mission in part is to establish cooperative research, product development, and  technology transfers. Vincent plans to focus the center on three areas going forward: instrumentation, robotic vehicles and renewable energy.
    CEUT Director Harold Vincent, a research professor in engineering, said the intent from the beginning with URI’s Centers of Excellence was to invite business participation. The advantage to small businesses is multiple: participation is free; exposure to research may trigger ideas for commercialization; that could lead to access to Small Business Technology Transfer Program  funding, which requires partnering with nonprofit research institutions, which joining the center takes care of.  Also, “By their keeping eyes and ears open , companies can save research dollars and time by not reinventing the wheel if they don’t have to,” says Vincent.

    Open for business
    The university is not interested in hiding its light - the results of all that research - under a bushel. It wants to connect with businesses, and is experimenting with how best to do that. “We’re looking for opportunities – not problems, but opportunities, like wind power,” said Bruce Corliss, Dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography.
    “We are trying to develop these relationships in order to create partnerships that would help us also have an impact on the private sector,” he said. By summer, Corliss hopes the GSO will be ready to start having conversations with companies “to let them know what we do, what our capacities are, and what the research possibilities are. Then in turn, we’ll see what their needs and interests are to see if can’t assist with that.”
    One approach, done through CEUT, has been to hold topical workshops addressing specific issues, such as green ships and anti-fouling coatings, and invite interested parties from specific sectors, like ship builders or marine operators, to learn, listen and talk to each other. 
    “I did a green workshop on ships. Not only was there an exchange of information, but some possible proposals they could work on together,” said Corliss.
    An example of how that kind of collaboration can work is none other than one of the 2011 winners of the STAC Rhode Island Research Alliance Collaborative Research Grant Awards. 
    Amtek SCP was awarded $94,644 on research in marine biofouling on high-performance molded materials. By collaborating with a research university, Ametek SCP will be able to evaluate novel coatings and expand its markets.
    From the study of the disbursement of toxins and dispersals in the water, to improving the autonomous capabilities of unmanned devices, to sniffing out chemical sources underwater, the range of research and its possible applications to business problems and adaptations to existing technology is endless. All that’s needed are collaborators, sponsors, partners and follow on research designed to mold some of this vast repository of knowledge into useable tools, for today and tomorrow.

     

    (As published in the March 2013 edition of Marine Technologies - www.seadiscovery.com)

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