First Friday: DunkWorks

Our First Friday Breakfast series speaker for December was Leslie-Ann McGee, from the Center for Marine Robotics at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. WHOI is the largest private ocean research institution in the United States, with 1400 employees and 800 scientific and tech staff. They are the home of the ALVIN submersible, and now DunkWorks.

DunkWorks, a heavy-duty research and development program, is a playoff on Skunk Works at Lockhead Martin. It’s a rapid prototyping, additive manufacturing, collaborative design space, where people can “come to just noodle,” Leslie-Ann said. DunkWorks provides the space and support to try ideas, fail quickly and cheaply, move on and iterate a design.

Scientists, developers and entrepreneurs want to make sure they don’t fail at sea, because ship time is expensive. However, Leslie-Ann says its “surprising how many ocean-based projects don’t understand the ocean. We’re here to help them understand.”

Self driving cars and drones are in the news frequently, but many people don’t realize how robotic systems are transforming ocean sciences. If an ocean spill happens in the arctic, for instance, how do we understand how oil functions under ice? How do we get there? The answer is to put robots under the ocean, including helicopter deployed robots, and robots that can swim for weeks.

Leslie-Ann said they’ve had to become experts on mooring systems and other things you don’t necessarily think of, working with multiple organizations. Sometimes companies compete with each other, and other times they work together.

One of the things they’re exploring is applying information collected by scientists to virtual reality and gaming technology. Imagine—a virtual reality game that lets you climb in and experience the elements that are making your project not work in real life, so mistakes don’t happen at sea. When scientists deploy vehicles they really want to get them back. “It’s like sending your kid to college,” Leslie-Ann said.

She said the Center for Marine Robotics does a lot of finding a needle in a haystack—like the El Faro cargo ship black box. The black box is tiny, the ocean is vast, and things aren’t always where they’re supposed to be. The black box wasn’t there when they went down to find it (in a couple thousand meters of water), so they sent an autonomous vehicle that can hover and maintain its position.

Future design possibilities include floatation, frames and load bearing structures, pressure housings and coatings. You may not think this is what scientists are working on, but it’s what they need.

The Center for Marine Robotics is teaming up with NASA to investigate oceans on other planets. “If other planets have oceans, there could be life,” she said. “We’d like to help them explore. Sometimes you don’t know what you need until you get there, so we’re helping them with 3D printing on demand.”

DunkWorks is not a machine shop, its a place to come and build cool things, she said. For instance they are 3D printing things that are going to sea, and then testing them to see how they function. They build for endurance in situ, building smart and durable in case a shark uses it as a chew toy.

Think of Dunkworks as not only a really advanced maker space, but a giant social experiment that takes away the traditional way of building and design, integrating different kinds of personel. It’s even staffed with a guru.

Membership is $200 a month for WHOI, and $500 a month for external users. For that $500, external users get DunkWorks, but they also get access to WHOI. Workshops and trainings are included.

One of the goals of DunkWorks is to create an integrated and interdisciplinary community of Blue Economy technologists that focuses on increased communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity. It’s a collaborative workspace, working with the many marine robotics enterprises in the area.

Leslie-Ann said if you ever wondered where the best place in the world to work on Marine robotics is, it’s here.

Skip to content