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WHOI Scientists and Engineers Partner with World-Renowned Companies to Market Revolutionary New Instruments


July 19, 2012

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) researchers have partnered with two companies to build and market undersea technology developed at WHOI: the Imaging FlowCytobot, an automated underwater microscope, and BlueComm, an underwater communications system that uses light to provide wireless transmission of data, including video imagery, in real or near-real time.

WHOI biologists Robert Olson and Heidi Sosik, creators of the Imaging FlowCytobot, have licensed their instrument to Falmouth-based McLane Research Laboratories, which manufactures and sells a wide range of precision oceanographic instruments.

WHOI engineers Norman E. Farr and Jonathan Ware are partnering with U.K.-based underwater acoustics and communications company Sonardyne International Ltd., to create the joint venture, Lumasys.

The Imaging FlowCytobot detects, photographs, and collects data on microscopic plants and animals — phytoplankton and zooplankton – in the ocean, characterizing, measuring, and quantifying their cells in order to identify them. The automated instrument is low-powered and low-maintenance; it gathers information 24 hours a day, for up to six months at a time, and sends it via fiber-optic cable tether back to a surface ship or land-based lab.

Olson says the instrument was borne of frustration. He and Sosik wanted a clearer picture of the types and numbers of plankton living in the ocean, but weren’t satisfied with traditional methods of gathering samples every few hours on research ships at sea.

“There was no good instrument to do what we wanted to do,” Olson says. So the two began to develop one, starting with a prototype of the Imaging FlowCytobot in 2003.

What Sosik and Olson didn’t realize was that the Imaging FlowCytobot would soon show its versatility and potential for applications. In 2007, while collaborating with Texas A&M biological oceanographer Lisa Campell in the Gulf of Mexico, a prototype version of the Imaging FlowCytobot detected high levels of the toxic algae, Dinophysis cf. ovum, an organism that causes diarrhetic shellfish poisoning in humans. They alerted local health officials, who promptly closed shellfish beds and recalled local oysters, clams, and mussels. As a result, no shellfish-related human illnesses were reported, and a local oyster festival went on—with non-contaminated shellfish brought in from elsewhere.

“The idea that we were designing something that had such an immediate impact on human health was really far from our minds,” Sosik says. “It’s gratifying to find that something we’re doing as a basic research endeavor has this quick return.”

Using the Imaging FlowCytobot in the Arctic Ocean, scientists recently discovered a huge bloom of phytoplankton under meter-thick ice, where they previously thought sunlight-requiring phytoplankton could not grow.

Yuki Honjo, McLane’s chief operating officer, says, “We’re excited about the Imaging FlowCytobot because it can answer a wide variety of questions.” She foresees uses ranging from coastal rehabilitation to monitoring complex ecosystems in real-time for applied research.

“We’re trying to build a fleet of instruments to answer a fleet of questions,” she says.

A collaboration among Farr and other engineers at WHOI, BlueComm uses low-power LED transmitters with small, inexpensive receivers to transfer data through water at a rate of 10 to 20 megabits per second up to 200 meters away. It allows scientists to upload large amounts of data and transmit video in near real-time from seafloor sensors and operate robots without “plugging in” to transmission cables.

Before the arrival of BlueComm, scientists used only acoustic communication devices. These can transfer data over larger distances, but at much slower speeds that could not transfer high-bandwidth data such as video in real-time.

Like cell phone and wireless Internet access, BlueComm transfers data wirelessly, making it possible, for example, to control remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) without a tether cable. Farr and his team demonstrated BlueComm’s potential in 2010 when they successfully operated ROV Jason at the Juan de Fuca Ridge in the Pacific Ocean and deployed seafloor equipment using video transmitted through the wireless optical system. He and Ware teamed up with Sonardyne in February 2012 to begin preparing BlueComm for the market.

“BlueComm opens new doors and creates a new way of thinking about how to get data from the sea floor,” Farr says. “Rather than recovering the BlueComm instrument to offload data, you can ‘fly’ an ROV close to a ‘sleeping’ BlueComm sensor package on the seafloor, wake it up, and tell it to transmit all of its data. Or you can suspend an instrument package from a surface vessel with optical communications on it, wake up the sea floor BlueComm unit, download all of the data, and put it back to sleep. This allows for data recovery using smaller ships and for longer sensor deployments.”

Shaun Dunn, engineering business development manager for Sonardyne, says, “It was clear to Sonardyne that there was a perfect synergy between our capabilities at long-range acoustic communications coupled with WHOI’s ability to communicate optically at extremely high rates over modest ranges. This unique combination unlocks a whole variety of new and exciting applications for subsea wireless communications that would not have been possible otherwise.”

Olson, Sosik, Farr, and Ware are not the only WHOI scientists and engineers who’ve partnered with outside companies to commercialize their instruments. WHOI engineer Hanumant Singh created SeaBED Technologies in 2010 to manufacture and sell autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). The SeaBED AUV can fly slowly or hover over the seafloor at depths of 2,000 meters and collect highly detailed sonar and optical images of the seabed.  It has been used to assess fisheries and survey marine protected areas. SeaBED Technologies is located in Falmouth, Mass.

Petrel Biosensors was founded in 2010 and is a joint venture between WHOI and the Regional Technology Development Corporation to develop instruments called swimming behavioral spectrophotometers to detect toxins in water. It is based on technology patented by WHOI biologist Scott Gallager and uses real-time changes in the swimming behavior of protozoa in response to toxins. Petrel Biosensors is located in Fall River, Mass.

EOM Offshore was also founded in 2010 and has its home in Pocasset, Mass. This WHOI spinoff specializes in stable, reliable mooring platforms for real-time data communication and power transmission between surface buoys and subsurface instrumentation. The technology was developed by WHOI engineers Don Peters, Walter Paul, John Kemp, and others.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, independent, non-profit organization in Falmouth, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment.