View from underwater in the ocean

Unlocking the Oceans’ Mysteries: BlueTech Lab Accelerates Maritime Innovation

By Denise Schiavone

With our state-of-the-art BlueTech Lab, MITRE’s working to advance undersea technologies for national security, climate science, commerce, and more.

two men launching a sensor off a boat

Above: MITRE blue tech researchers, including Nick Rotker (left) perform underwater testing in closed environments and the open ocean, such as this 2018 Undersea Sounding Experiment in Narragansett Bay.

“The ocean exists in a three-dimensional space,” says MITRE engineer Ballard Smith. “Everything in it is essentially flying around through this fluid we call water, with different things to discover in every one of those dimensions.”

And yet, though roughly 71% of the world is covered in water, we know more about what’s happening in faraway galaxies than off nearby coasts.

That’s because it’s hard to collect data underwater—really hard. From communications challenges to animal behavior to weather phenomena, natural hazards and the simple laws of physics often hinder exploration.

The MITRE BlueTech Lab, which broke ground last November, seeks to break down some of the barriers to understanding. The lab will bridge efforts across the public and private sectors—as a national resource for advancing undersea testing, innovation, and collaboration.

The timing couldn’t be more crucial. With growing competition for shrinking global resources, underwater sensing and data collection have critical applications for national security, commerce, clean energy, and more.

“It's really about accelerating maritime technology development to unlock our understanding of what lies beneath the surface,” says Nick Rotker, Smith’s colleague and MITRE’s chief BlueTech strategist.

“From a defense standpoint, how do we improve real-time situational awareness? From a climate perspective, how do we understand changing waterways and how our behaviors affect them?”

MITRE’s unique position as operator of DoD’s National Security Engineering Center, along with our experience supporting agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), helps us drive a whole-of-nation approach to a complex set of issues.

The Bedford, Massachusetts-based BlueTech Lab will also take advantage of years of MITRE expertise and ongoing work in the maritime domain, including underwater sensors and acoustics, undersea communications, and artificial intelligence (AI).

Comprehending what’s going on in the world’s oceans has broad implications. Increased knowledge will inform everything from national policy decisions to where we build houses and how government and industry stabilize the global food supply chain.

An Ocean of Opportunity

Collaborations with partners like Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of Rhode Island, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, and MassChallenge can deliver big impact in accelerating maritime innovations.

“Through these partnerships with academia and industry, MITRE can lead a whole-of-nation approach to accelerate maritime technology innovation and solve problems—not just regionally, but globally,” says Douglas Robbins, vice president, engineering and prototyping, MITRE Labs.

The BlueTech facility will make use of MITRE’s NERVE capability (short for Networked Experimentation, Research, and Virtualization Environment). NERVE connects the lab infrastructure both physically and virtually. The capability enables real-time information sharing and rapid testing of new technologies, sidestepping the risks of using actual waterways.

Starting from a fledgling idea, Rotker and Smith are now seeing their vision for undersea technology innovation come full circle. What was first an idea they fleshed out through MITRE’s independent R&D program will soon become our state-of-the-art, all-weather test facility. 

Building on New England’s history in leading undersea technology development, the lab will bridge local and national innovation efforts. A bonus: the anticipated technology growth will likely drive significant employment opportunities in the region.

The lab itself is an example of environmentally sound reuse. It’s being built around a pre-existing tank, once a giant icemaker used to cool the Bedford facility in the ‘90s. And it’s poised to drive growth in both our ongoing and new blue tech (marine-related) projects.

This includes exploring unmanned undersea technologies that may help NOAA expand industry offshore and promote economic growth. Additionally, we’re collaborating with Woods Hole to consider how AI can enable better data-driven decisions for climate science and maritime operations.

Rotker says the level of collaboration and resources in the blue space at present is unprecedented. “The opportunity is off the charts right now. And over the past few years, we’ve seen an exponential increase in demand from our government customers wanting to tackle these national-scale problems.

“We’re bringing the right players together to develop and apply technology that will expand our knowledge of the maritime environment.”

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MITRE BlueTech Lab at a Glance

  • 106’ Long
  • 40’ Wide
  • 18’ Deep
  • 575,000 Gallon Capacity
  • Scheduled Opening: Spring 2023