What is Project ABLE and what does it mean for blue tech in Delaware?
A new two-year project called Project ABLE was officially launched this week in Lewes with the grand opening of the Blue Economy Tech Center at the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean & Environment.
The project aims to position Delaware as a center for blue technology. It is the result of Congressional-directed spending, supported by the Delaware federal delegation consisting of Sen. Chris Coons, Sen. Tom Carper and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, and the work of Delaware blue-tech advocates such as Rob Nicholson.
If you haven’t been following Blue Tech’s growth in Sussex County, here’s the basics: It’s about technology that involves the ocean, including autonomous surface ships (aka robot boats), underwater robotics, and wind turbines. UD is already home to some of the most advanced aquatic robots that can be used for everything from water rescue and underwater search to environmental research.
Project ABLE has been in development for about two years and has received $1.3 million in funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
What exactly is Project ABLE?
Project ABLE’s mission statement is succinct: “To make Delaware a leading national center for the application and development of autonomous systems in support of advancing the blue economy.” ABLE stands for Alignment, Build, Leverage and Expand.
Delaware’s location in the middle of the east coast is not only good for business people who commute between New York and DC, but also for blue tech, an industry that’s growing up and down both US coasts, Alaska and the Caribbean.
NOAA estimates that approximately 40% of the US population lives in coastal counties, and the US blue economy supports millions of jobs and contributes hundreds of billions to the nation’s gross domestic product.
And not only MINT, energy and education benefit from it. Local small businesses, including retail and restaurants — many of which close to tourism in coastal towns during the off-season — will benefit from year-round residents with well-paying jobs.
The Impact of Blue Tech
Kirsten McGregor, founder of Sagax Associates, is an economic development, recovery and resilience consultant who has worked in the blue tech space for more than a decade, including serving in prominent positions such as senior policy advisor to President Obama Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. She has worked on blue tech initiatives in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Rhode Island.
But the Delaware resident hadn’t worked on a blue-tech project in the First State before becoming a consultant for UD’s Island Policy Lab and joining Project ABLE.
“We are envisioning the blue economy as a larger strategic picture and trying to get that idea across to not just lawmakers but the local businesses already based there,” McGregor told Technical.ly. “Get the community on board and let them know it’s not just something where ‘Wilmington’ comes in and tells them what to do.”
That means presenting the concept at eye level and telling the residents what they get out of it. As cool as robotic boats are, it may not be clear that they have the potential to impact everyone in these communities in economically positive ways.
“I think that’s part of the reason they brought me to the table,” McGregor said. “Because it’s going to be talked about the robots and their whole geek, but ultimately people need to see how it’s applied to their seafood restaurant.”
While the Blue Economy Tech Center is located on a UD campus, the initiative includes several partner universities, including Delaware State University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of South Carolina, and the University of Rhode Island. This also includes private blue-tech companies such as Boeing-acquired Liquid Robotics and the Delaware Prosperity Partnership (DPP).
“A key advantage that Delaware has for the blue economy, and particularly for blue technology, which can be sort of a broad umbrella, is that we have the assets here that are important building blocks for building the blue economy ‘ he told Noah Olson, director of innovation at DPP. “From an economic standpoint, the work that the University of Delaware is doing down in Lewes is a great asset to us when it comes to partnering with companies in the industry.”
“Project ABLE is a great opportunity for the Delaware region to accelerate innovation and expertise and shift the mindset towards durable and scaled autonomous systems for global maritime operations.”
Those visiting the new Blue Economy Tech Center can learn about the various autonomous ships that have performed missions as part of Project ABLE, including Liquid Robotics’ Wave Glider technology. Programmed to collect data while cruising the ocean, this surface and underwater robot resembles a surfboard with antennae; The sensors attached below collect data about ocean currents and other potentially challenging conditions and send it to satellites. In 2018, two wave gliders collected data for research after the Kilauea volcano erupted and affected the waters around Hawaii’s Big Island of Hawaii.
“Human systems have been used successfully to collect and transmit real-time ocean observation data for research, offshore energy and defense applications for more than a decade,” said Shane Goodenough, CEO of Liquid Robotics. “Project ABLE is a great opportunity for the Delaware region to accelerate innovation and expertise and shift the mindset towards durable and scaled autonomous systems for global maritime operations.”
While Blue Tech in Delaware is focused on Sussex County and its coastal economy, Project ABLE could affect the entire state, from farms in Kent County to the Port of Wilmington.
“There are opportunities to combine aquaculture and regular farming,” Olson said. “It’s an interesting area to work in and we’re seeing a lot of attention and action there, particularly with the overall increase in sustainable energy.”
The Blue Economy Tech Center hosts events open to the community, whether you’re an academic, environmentalist, or youngster interested in getting into blue tech in the future – or just someone who likes robots. To find out more about upcoming events, join the LinkedIn group of the project ABLE ([email protected])..