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Delaware universities launch Blue Tech program

Katie Tabeling
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In December, the University of Delaware invited the community to celebrate the kick off of Project ABLE, a new 2-year, $1.3 million project funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study the implications of Blue Technology. | PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE/ERIC KRAPE

In December, the University of Delaware invited the community to celebrate the kick off of Project ABLE, a new 2-year, $1.3 million project funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and housed in the UD College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment. | PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE/ERIC KRAPE

LEWES — The University of Delaware and Delaware State University have launched a technology and workforce development initiative focused on what may be the last, unexplored frontier of planet Earth: the ocean.

In October, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) granted UD’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment $1.3 million over the next two years to develop a center focused on marine technologies at its Lewes campus. The initiative is Project Align, Build, Leverage and Expand (ABLE), and it kicked off at the end of 2022.

“Our focus on this two-year project is to look at ways in which some of the autonomous systems that we have or our partners have that can be brought into the mix for the blue economy,” said Art Trembanis, professor and UD’s lead researcher on Project ABLE. “There’s not only the opportunities of realizing what the technology can enable, but also the skill sets and workforce needed to answer these technical challenges and ways to make these systems smarter.”

Blue tech — or technology used to understand, explore and manage the marine environment — has been a rapidly growing sector. Industries, jobs and other economic growth that rely on the ocean contributed $373 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product and supported 2.3 million jobs in 2018, according to the U.S Department of Commerce.

The technology itself includes robotic boats, artificial intelligence, geospatial mapping and sensor networks that can detect weather patterns and map the ocean floor. And there’s plenty of room to innovate: NOAA reports that about 80% of the earth’s ocean is unmapped.

Specifically, Project ABLE will “ignite the advancement of a BlueTech center of excellence in Sussex County,” according to its website. But it will also focus on advancing and developing robotic systems for offshore research and monitoring – particularly in the offshore wind development industry. 

While Delaware has no offshore wind projects, two projects approved by Maryland regulators in federal waters off First State shores mean Delaware will see some unknown impact to its workforce in the near future. More offshore wind projects in New York and New Jersey also put Delaware in a prime spot to tap into other unique opportunities in research, technology and job training, as the state is within driving distance and also home to inland bays that open to the Atlantic Ocean.

“There’s not much adoption in autonomous systems in offshore renewable energy development, so the thought is we could look at ways that it could apply,” Trembanis said. “It’s the realization that there’s a variety of things that need to be done over the lifespan of these projects. It’s surveying the shape and composition of the sea floor, it’s looking at possible endangered species and structures there. We think that using these systems can make the process more cost effective, safe and provide a less carbon footprint.”

UD has already completed projects in self-driving boats and other robotics. Drones and robots equipped with sonar have been used to find ghost crab pots. But the technology can also have greater impacts on researching climate change in coastal areas and developing the aquaculture industry.

Both UD and DSU will also work with a network of commercial partners like Ocean Infinity America, a marine robotics company that has been on the Lewes campus since 2000, Hydronalix and Boeing company Liquid Robotics, among others.

For Trembanis, Project ABLE can also introduce not only students and researchers to a new world of technology, but also the Delaware community to possible jobs in the growing blue tech sector.

“When people think of robots, they think there’s less people doing the work. But the reality is it’s the opposite. You need people to build, maintain, operate and sustain these systems,” he explained. “Just even thinking about maintaining a fleet of boats, you need marine technicians, engineers, mechanics, etc. Electronics can get corroded from the ocean. So, we’ll need everything from people who can build and maintain these systems to people who can process and analyze the data.”

Next steps of Project ABLE include monthly workshops, training programs and technology testing information. For more information on how to get involved, visit https://sites.udel.edu/ceoe-able/

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