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Gift enables new investments in ocean technologies

By  | November 9, 2020

Susan and Coleman Burke. Photo courtesy the Burke Foundation.

As any business knows, access to startup capital is key to staying competitive in a rapidly-shifting technological landscape. A $500,000 grant from the Coleman and Susan Burke Foundation has allowed WHOI to make crucial investments in ocean technology, a gift that will have lasting impacts on the institution’s technical and research prowess.

As a former officer in the US Navy, Coleman Burke has a particular passion for ocean exploration and technology-enhanced research at sea. After funding the R/V Neil Armstrong’s computer lab in 2016, as well as the computer lab in the LOSOS building, Burke wanted to finish these projects with a follow-up investment, says Richard Pittenger, a retired Navy admiral who now works with WHOI administration.

“Coley has a deep love of the sea, and as a passionate environmentalist, a very real commitment to the preservation of our most precious resource. We applaud the work of WHOI and we are delighted to support it,” says Susan Burke of the donation.

A new interactive display on board the R/V Neil Armstrong shows the ship's sensors and a view of deck operations.

One part of the funding will be immediately obvious to researchers aboard the Armstrong. Video monitors have been installed in nine locations throughout the vessel, including in the conference room. The new monitors allow users to toggle between a navigation screen, sonar and Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) sensor data, while providing video conferencing capabilities. Another upgrade, expected in 2021, will enable researchers on the ship to video conference with their colleagues on shore.

“The Burke Foundation gift opened an opportunity to significantly improve access, control, and use of the Armstrong’s sensors and cameras by a wide variety of researchers and crew from many locations throughout the ship— and even from off the ship through telepresence,” says Pittenger. “This is a first for the UNOLS research fleet, so it’ll put the Armstrong ahead of the rest.”

WHOI marine chemist Aleck Wang recovers samples from a CTD during a 2016 research cruise aboard the R/V Neil Armstrong, deployed along the New England Continental Shelf in the vicinity of the Ocean Observatories Initiative Pioneer Array. (Photo by Elise Hugus, UnderCurrent Productions)


The Burke Foundation also funded three projects making use of novel data streams from the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI). Marine geochemist Aleck Wang will use data from the Pioneer Array to examine the relationship between coastal and mid-ocean carbon dioxide fluxes along the New England continental shelf.

Using data from the Irminger Sea Array off the southern tip of Greenland, a project led by physical oceanographers Isabela LeBras and Roo Nicholson will investigate deep mixing and oxygen cycling, while Malcolm Scully will use physical and bio-optical data from the array to look into diurnal and seasonal controls on phytoplankton.

Following up on its past support of WHOI senior scientist Chris German, the Burke Foundation provided funding for an innovative technology that enables remote communication with the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Sentry, and potentially, a fleet of deep-sea AUVs.

In testing planned next summer on the East Pacific Rise, German’s “WaveGlider” will float on the ocean surface, using satellite communications to send commands and receive data from Sentry. German says this capability will more than double the efficiency of research vessels, which are free to travel miles away from the WaveGlider to conduct other operations.

German says the Burke Foundation’s investment is critical for providing a “proof of concept” that he can use to attract government funding.

“To understand our changing ocean in a sufficiently rapid way, we need to massively accelerate the pace with which we explore vast, unknown expanses of ocean,” says German. “Once the WaveGlider is field-proven, we expect the National Science Foundation, NOAA-Ocean Exploration, and others to take notice.”

A three-phase concept for increasingly sophisticated, telepresence-enabled and robotics-led deep ocean exploration using the WaveGlider platform and one or more autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs).