NOAA announces $94-million ocean exploration institute led by URI

May 6, 2019

The University of Rhode Island will lead a new $94-million institute to support ocean exploration, responsible resource management, improved scientific understanding of the deep sea and strengthen the nation’s Blue Economy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced today. The Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute, comprised of five internationally renowned ocean science institutions and led by the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, will spend the next five years working closely with NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER) to survey an estimated 3 billion acres of U.S. ocean territory.

“Being selected to lead NOAA’s Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute is not only an exciting announcement for the University of Rhode Island, but also central to our research mission as a land-and-sea grant university,” said URI President David M. Dooley. “We look forward to working with our partners to explore our nation’s vast ocean resources in order to increase understanding and ensure their responsible and sustainable use.”

North America and western hemisphere from space

There is another half of America, beneath the ocean’s surface, that we know very little about. U.S. territorial waters cover more ocean than that of almost any other country on Earth.    

—Dr. Robert Ballard

“There is another half of America, beneath the ocean’s surface, that we know very little about,” said Dr. Robert Ballard, lead principal investigator of the cooperative institute, Director of the Center for Ocean Exploration at the Graduate School of Oceanography and President of the Ocean Exploration Trust. “U.S. territorial waters cover more ocean than that of almost any other country on Earth. Imagine we’re about to lead the next Lewis and Clark expedition, only six times over. When we’re done, we’ll know what we have.”

The institute’s five members—University of Rhode Island, Ocean Exploration Trust, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, University of New Hampshire and University of Southern Mississippi—will combine their substantial exploration, scientific, technological and engineering resources and expertise in discovering this largely unexplored “New America.”

“With the Blue Economy expected to more than double its contribution to the U.S. economy and employ 40 million people by 2030, NOAA’s new cooperative institute will be on the front lines helping NOAA explore and characterize the 3 billion acres of U.S. ocean territory,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and deputy NOAA administrator. “The Blue Economy relies on data and information to inform science-based management and sustainable use of our ocean resources in support of economic growth, food security and our national security.”

“The NOAA Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute under the leadership of Professor Robert Ballard will build upon long-standing collaborations with NOAA and our partner institutions,” said URI Graduate School of Oceanography Dean Bruce Corliss. “We look forward to continue to work with NOAA to address their important research in exploring and mapping the world’s oceans.”

The institute will enhance the capabilities of the NOAA Office Ocean Exploration and Research’s two ships of exploration, NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer and exploration vessel (E/V) Nautilus—owned and operated by the Ocean Exploration Trust—to explore the seafloor as well as the mid-water or “Twilight Zone” where 95 percent of all living creatures are found. The cooperative institute will also explore the surface of the sea in collaboration with the National Geographic Society, which pioneered the development and use of increasingly sophisticated cameras and drones.

ROV Deep Reef being deployed
A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) is deployed at sea

A priority for the cooperative institute is to transition away from the current methods of ocean exploration by developing and deploying in the deep ocean smaller, less expensive and mobile remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). These next-generation instruments will help carry out ocean mapping and exploration missions and can be launched from a wide variety of oceanographic vessels, such as the new National Science Foundation regional class research vessel, R/V Resolution, soon to be homeported at URI’s Narragansett Bay Campus.

While the cooperative institute’s scientific research will take place far from shore and deep underwater, the consortium will provide an open window for the public to join the next five years of ocean discovery. Cutting-edge telepresence technology based at GSO’s Inner Space Center (ISC) will allow students, teachers and other members of the public to interact with scientists and see what researchers see in real-time as they explore the nation’s ocean depths.

“The Inner Space Center develops and operates some of the most advanced telepresence technologies available to ocean scientists and educators,” said ISC director and cooperative institute co-principal investigator Dwight Coleman. “We are excited to distribute live video and streaming data from the institute’s research missions to the world.”

The Inner Space Center is the conduit through which remotely distributed ocean scientists can participate in each mission in real-time, thereby improving the efficiency of effectiveness of ocean exploration.

“I’m proud that our own University of Rhode Island has been selected to lead this pioneering initiative to advance human knowledge of the oceans. We’re fortunate to have Dr. Ballard and his outstanding team at URI to direct this undertaking,” said U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. “I have worked for years to secure significant investment in NOAA’s Cooperative Institute program, and I’m glad those efforts have led to this landmark investment in Rhode Island’s Blue Economy.”

“This award is a recognition of the University of Rhode Island’s leadership in ocean exploration and capitalizes on the infrastructure, like the Okeanos Explorer and Inner Space Center, that NOAA and URI have already built in Rhode Island,” said Senator Jack Reed. “It will lead to important discoveries and surveys of what lies beneath the waves and will enable URI researchers and their partners to more efficiently explore, collaborate, and map submerged U.S. territory and deepwater habitats. After winning the competition for a new National Science Foundation ship R/V Resolution, URI’s designation as a NOAA Cooperative Institute is yet further confirmation of its standing as a world-class oceanographic research center,” said Reed, who as a senior member of the Appropriations Committee that oversees NOAA funding, has worked to support ocean exploration and locate federal research vessels in the Ocean State.

“The extraordinary work conducted by the URI Graduate School of Oceanography is a great source of pride for many Rhode Islanders,” said Congressman Jim Langevin. “With this new cooperative agreement, URI will further solidify its reputation as one of the world’s leading oceanography and undersea research centers. I congratulate the research team for securing this award.”

“America’s coastlines are some of the most beautiful in the world, and no one knows that better than those who call the Ocean State home,” Congressman David N. Cicilline said. “This critical investment of federal funds in URI’s Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute to survey billions of acres of ocean in U.S. territory will help researchers and policymakers better understand the best ways to preserve and protect oceanic ecosystems for generations to come.”

The cooperative institute’s members have played pivotal roles in the development of ocean exploration technology. From human-occupied submersibles to the most recent innovations in ROV and AUV technologies, the future now leads towards complete robotic exploration with people on land orchestrating deep-ocean missions.

“Ocean discoveries will soon be made by robots that operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week while far out to sea and diving to great depths,” said Ballard. “But the future of ocean exploration will remain a human endeavor. We need the visionaries who develop ideas and new ways of exploring, engineers who make those ideas a reality, operators of the technology, and skilled communicators and educators who can explain the importance of these discoveries and inspire people around the world.”