University of Vermont

Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory

Local Tech Company Tests Oceanographic Vehicles at Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory

Industry-university partnership provides unique research and training opportunities

Greensea engineers deploy a remotely operated vehicle

If you happened to be walking by the Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory (RESL) recently, you would have come across a curious site - a tent with enough computer technology to make NASA take notice. And if you looked closer, you would see that this command-central setup was linked by an umbilical cord to a box-like droid with cameras, propellers, and computers that was in the water darting and diving. Greensea Systems, a software technology company located 16 km down the road from Burlington in Richmond, specializes in developing navigational software for unmanned underwater vehicles. Last Wednesday, Greensea was dockside testing an upgrade to a popular commercial remotely operated vehicle (ROV) before sending the ROV back to their client. Although the testing was for its navigational system, a quick peak at the live-video feed from the ROV's camera showed larval fishes swimming to and diving from the surface, demonstrating an interesting link between cutting-edge technology and biology.

In autumn 2012, RESL's Director, Jason Stockwell, was teaching Fisheries Techniques and Biology and invited Ben Kinnaman, President and founder of Greensea Systems, to give a guest lecture about his company's work with oceanographic instruments and software development. Although Greensea does not directly work with fisheries research, the application of technology to underwater research was "something I thought the students should see" recalls Stockwell. Kinnaman was quite surprised, "I had emails and phone calls from students by the time I got back to my office asking how to get more involved with the technical side of data collection." Over the past two years, Ben has received numerous and repeated inquiries from students who saw his lecture, asking about career advice and opportunities at Greensea and elsewhere.

Since that time, Greensea has been using UVM's Research Vessel (R/V) Melosira to test their control software on ROVs and AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles). The continual contact with the Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Laboratory fostered mutual interest between Kinnaman and Stockwell to develop a working relationship. The opportunity came this past winter. Stockwell had attended a meeting of the Global Lakes Ecological Observatory Network (GLEON) the previous fall and was impressed with the grassroots effort to use high-frequency sensor data from lakes around the world to better understand the roles and responses of lake ecosystems to climate change. As a result of that meeting and with support from the Kelsey Foundation and UVM's Rubenstein School, Kinnaman and his staff are now building a "sensored" buoy system to deploy in Shelburne Pond, at cost, to better understand why the pond is subject to intense blue-green algal blooms. The buoy system will provide data on weather and water quality conditions at the pond every 30 minutes, with a near real-time link to a web portal for research, teaching, and publice outreach. As part of this project, Kinnaman and Stockwell thought the opportunity might be ripe to get a UVM student involved - enter Peter Ferguson.

Peter was one of the students in the Fisheries class back in 2012, and one of the students that kept in contact with Kinnaman about possible opportunities at Greensea. The construction of the buoy system provided an opportunity for Peter to get hands-on experience in applied technology and engineering. So far, Peter has worked side-by-side with Greensea staff to  create electrical diagrams and finalize parts lists. Peter has found this experience to be "incredibly educational and intensely fun". The buoy should be completed and deployed on Shelburne Pond in August, just in time to integrate the sensor technology and its data into this fall's Limnology and Fisheries classes.

Both Stockwell and Kinnaman are hopeful that this is just the beginning of a relationship that provides opportunites for UVM students to get real-world experience linking technology with environmental monitoring and research, and for Greensea to foster a local workforce capable of linking high-tech engineering with applied biological and environmental questions. With UVM Professor Ellen Marsden, Kinnaman and Stockwell have a proposal pending to build an AUV capable of tracking individual fish tagged with acoustic transmitters, and downloading data at remote acoustic receivers. If funded, more opportunities may be available for UVM undergraduates to get hands-on experience in applied technology.