Woods Hole to receive $5 million to build better underwater robots

No one lives in this yellow submarine -- Sentry is just a companion robot that sometimes joins Alvin, the human-occupied submersible (painted red) on expeditions. (Photo: WHOI)
No one lives in this yellow submarine -- Sentry is just a companion robot that sometimes joins Alvin, the human-occupied submersible (painted red) on expeditions. (Photo: WHOI)

The Bay State has a soft spot for underwater robots. On Friday, Massachusetts officials gathered at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to announce a $5 million grant that will expand the center’s robotics research facility over the next five years.

The grant will fund new test tanks, a pressure testing space for deep sea robots, and a fabrication shop with a desktop 3-D printer for prototyping parts for new machines at WHOI’s Center for Marine Robotics.

The grand goal of the expansion is to more quickly test and build underwater robotics systems, a typically slow process as researchers wait for access to ships and the ocean to do live tests.

“A lot of the tests you’d do at sea, we’re trying to bring those to shore to a very local and easy-to-access test facility,” said James Bellingham, the Center’s director. Bellingham, who started out at MIT and co-founded Bluefin Robotics, joined the two-year-old center in July this year from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

WHOI researchers can test some of the new robot parts in their existing tanks, but can’t run their full-size robots like the Alvin diver, a deep sea vessel that can carry a human. The new tank, which could measure some 30-feet across and run 20-feet deep when finally built, would accommodate a full test run.

A portion of the funding will back the development of an off-shore test site near Martha’s Vineyard, allowing researchers to control the conditions in which they test a sophisticated sensing or navigation systems in open water.

“The whole point of this facility is that you’re accelerating the turnaround of these ideas,” Bellingham said.

He also anticipates the facility and grant could be a booster shot for the robotics industry in Massachusetts area. The zone already plays host to a cluster of mechanical maritime explorers built by Hydroid, Teledyne, and others, in addition to Bluefin.

“It’s a place with a strong nautical tradition and so it’s a great place to be working on this,” Bellingham said.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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