As part of the ongoing Tonga Eruption Seabed Mapping Project, a team of scientists conducted a deep-water survey to better understand the impacts of the January 2022 Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption on the ocean environment. The research team used a technology developed by NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab (PMEL) to determine the level of ongoing volcanic and hydrothermal activity within the post-eruption caldera. The Miniature Autonomous Plume Recorder (MAPR) instruments made it possible for scientists to capture direct measurements of the water column up to 300 meters deep. This is the first time that such a survey has been conducted entirely remotely, using an uncrewed surface vessel that was operated and monitored by engineers and scientists located across the globe. Learn more about this PMEL mission and NOAA’s technological innovation effort. A SeaKit engineer on the dock in Tonga mounting the PMEL MAPRs onto a specifically designed cage to fit on the USV Maxlimer. Photo Credit: Sea-Kit International/NIWA/Nippon Foundation
Stories related to NOAA technology transfer broadly.
When a volcano in the South Pacific Ocean erupted in January 2022, NOAA researchers were well-equipped to study the multi-hazard event by sky and by sea. Key technologies and strategic partnerships made it possible for NOAA to issue warnings that saved lives around the world, while also collecting scientific data that will improve forecasting models and disaster response for future events.
NOAA’s laboratories regularly partner with private sector companies through Cooperative Research and Development Agreements – CRADAs – to conduct work that is mutually beneficial and helps to accomplish the NOAA mission. One area of increasing collaborative activity is in private weather forecasting. A recent article in Grist.org provides a good description of how NOAA’s weather forecasting work overlaps with private industry and how they complement each other. Read the original article: As private weather forecasting takes off, who is left behind?
Story originally published in April, 2021. Device could help protect threatened ecosystems and aid fishing communities The Challenge Over the last 20 years, invasive lionfish populations have dramatically increased throughout the western Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean Sea. Lionfish have already caused a decline in native species that have significant ecological, cultural, and commercial value. Further impacts on coral reefs and other important ecosystems are anticipated, but not yet fully understood. Fortunately, as the threat of lionfish has intensified, so too have the levels of awareness and concern among not just scientists and fishers, but among members of the public. In recent years, state-sponsored lionfish fishing derbies have incentivized divers to remove lionfish from coastal waters, and the growing demand for this tasty and widely-promoted sustainable seafood has surpassed the supply. Although spearfishing has proven to be an effective approach for managing populations in shallow areas, lionfish remain uncontrolled in deeper waters, where they continue to threaten fragile ecosystems (and evade dinner plates). Therefore, there is a demonstrated need and resounding demand for effective, non-destructive ways to capture lionfish that linger beyond recreational scuba depths. Innovative Solution NOAA’s recently-patented lionfish trap could be a solution that offers both ecological and commercial benefits. The trap is shaped like a change purse and is constructed primarily out of a hinged steel frame, attached netting, and a centrally-located vertical panel called a “fish attraction device.” Once deployed from the surface, the lionfish trap descends vertically through the water until it hits the bottom, where two curved extensions cause the jaws to spring open and lay flat on the bottom. The fish attraction device is then revealed, drawing lionfish towards the center of the six-foot diameter net. Later, the trap can be recovered by pulling on a surface line, which closes the trap’s hinged jaws and captures the fish within the ring of netting. This innovative technology was designed with specific operational and conservation-related goals in mind, and as a result, has several benefits over conventional fish traps. For example, the lionfish trap’s open non-containment design prevents “ghost fishing,” which is when gear “continues to fish” after being lost or abandoned. The lack of bait in the trap minimizes by-catch, or the capture of unwanted fish. Furthermore, the trap causes minimal damage to the ocean floor, is easily transportable on fishing boats due to its flat design, and is relatively simple to construct, deploy, and retrieve. Pathway to Patent The lionfish trap was invented by Dr. Steve Gittings, who serves as the Chief Scientist of NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program. Gittings first had the idea for the trap in 2014, after attending a colleague’s presentation about modifying lobster traps so they could be used for deep-water lionfish capture. In the presentation photos, Gittings noticed that lionfish were present, but far more were hovering around the trap than inside it, and that inspired the idea to design a trap that would take advantage of lionfishes’ tendency to aggregate around vertical structures. “It started in my garage as a PVC cube,” said Gittings, who describes himself as a “Garagineer”. Over the next couple of years, the invention progressed through several phases of design and testing, during which the trap was modified to be less bulky, easier to deploy, and more enticing to lionfish. Throughout the process, Gittings engaged recreational and commercial fishermen from numerous places, including Florida, North Carolina, Aruba, Mexico, and Belize. Incorporating the input and expertise of these partners allowed Gittings to improve the lionfish trap so that it meets everyone’s needs. In addition to NOAA, much of the testing of the trap prototypes was supported by donations and funds from Lionfish University, ReefSave, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and involved numerous volunteers and graduate students. The patent for Gittings’ trap, formally known as the “Apparatus for Harvesting Lionfish,” was filed in April 2018 and issued in February 2021. The Role of Technology Transfer Initially, Gittings did not consider patenting the trap. He explained, “My interest in developing these traps, as a civil servant, was to keep it as open-source as possible, so that anybody can use these to not only help support their fishermen, but to protect ecosystems around the Caribbean.” Gittings reached out to NOAA’s Technology Partnerships Office (TPO) after a colleague recommended that he speak with someone about potentially patenting the trap. TPO is NOAA’s research-to-commercialization office. Among other functions, TPO helps NOAA inventors patent their scientific and technological innovations and transfer them into the commercial marketplace, where they can more broadly impact ecosystems, communities, and economies. After speaking with TPO’s Technology Transfer Program Manager, as well as a representative from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) General Counsel Office, Gittings said he realized the best way to continue testing and improving the trap so that he could accomplish his goals was to “get control over the trap through patenting so that nobody else could stop us.” Gittings expressed gratitude for the support he received during the process of filing for the patent. “They interpreted everything I told them, going through every detail of the trap, and then put them on paper in language that the Patent Office understands. It was absolutely essential to have them do that work.” Looking Ahead Gittings’ long-term vision for the lionfish traps, should they prove to be an effective conservation method, is for fishers to use the traps outside of their primary fishing season. In using these lionfish traps, he said, “The fishermen would be supplementing their income and doing conservation at the same time.” Gittings added that a supplemental fishery targeting lionfish could also reduce the pressure on native species, such as snapper and grouper, which are overfished in some areas. And commercial use of the trap would provide an environmentally-friendly and reliable harvest for the seafood industry and its hungry customers. If the lionfish trap is successful, it will serve as another example of how technology transfer at NOAA contributes to realizing the agency’s guiding vision of healthy and resilient ecosystems, communities, and economies. The next step is to determine whether the traps are effective for controlling lionfish populations in deep water habitats. The prototypes were tested at depths of about 100 feet, but lionfish can be very abundant down to several hundred feet below the surface. In October 2020, the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) received a NOAA Saltonstall-Kennedy Competitive Grant to pursue this research and commercialization testing. REEF plans to collaborate with members of the Florida Keys lobster fishing community to test and improve various aspects of trap design, deployment, and long-term effectiveness.
A record number of NOAA Cooperative Research and Development Agreements in 2021 has generated scientific and economic benefits Research partnerships are increasingly important as scientists work to address complex global problems like coastal resilience, food security, and climate change. Public-private partnerships, in particular, are vital for bringing private sector innovation and agility into NOAA’s research and development efforts. One of the key tools in NOAA’s partnership toolkit is the CRADA, or Cooperative Research and Development Agreement. A CRADA is a formal agreement that allows federal and non-federal partners to do collaborative research and further develop new science into commercially-available products. CRADAs connect NOAA Laboratories or Science Centers with private U.S. companies, universities, and other entities, creating scientific partnerships across NOAA’s mission areas. CRADAs are valuable because they allow NOAA and non-federal partners to share ideas, technical expertise, facilities, and other research materials. The NOAA Technology Partnerships Office (TPO) is responsible for managing all of NOAA’s CRADAs. During Fiscal Year 2021, TPO initiated 18 new CRADAs, which is the highest number of these agreements ever to be started in one year at NOAA. This represents a 28% increase in the total number of new CRADAs from the previous fiscal year. Furthermore, NOAA and its research partners benefitted from a total of 57 active CRADAs this year, representing an increase of 24% from 2020. The number of CRADAs at NOAA is increasing as more federal researchers and non-federal partners see the value of existing public-private research and development efforts. Collaborations between NOAA and private-sector innovators accelerate research and development that supports both NOAA’s operations and commercialization within the private sector. This is important because more people can benefit from cutting-edge scientific discoveries and inventions when they are available on the commercial market. One example of an ongoing CRADA collaboration is NOAA’s partnership with U.S. biotechnology company, Prospective Research, Inc. NOAA researchers developed a probiotic to prevent disease in oysters and then began a public-private partnership with Prospective Research to further develop and test a freeze-dried version of the formula. The new shelf-stable probiotic has been shown to increase the survival rate of oyster larvae by 20-30% and is expected to be commercially available in 2022. The probiotic has the potential to increase sustainable aquaculture production worldwide. Another partnership between NOAA and the U.S. business, Saildrone, has simultaneously increased NOAA’s capacity to conduct innovative research and provide high-quality climate services, while also directly benefiting Saildrone and the U.S economy, more broadly. NOAA and Saildrone entered into a CRADA to explore how the company’s ocean drone technology could be further developed and strategically used to collect environmental data. Saildrone’s products have since been modified to support diverse NOAA research projects in the Arctic, across fisheries, around Antarctica, and even in the eye of a hurricane. The hurricane-equipped Saildrone Explorer was recently named one of the 100 Greatest Innovations of 2021. Video footage from on board Saildrone 1045 and animation showing location in Hurricane Sam on Sept. 30, 2021. As a result of this fruitful research partnership, NOAA scientists have been able to use the newly-collected data to improve storm forecasts, fisheries management, and climate services, while Saildrone has enjoyed a significant boom in business. According to a 2019 economic valuation study, during the three years after the 2014 CRADA with NOAA was established, Saildrone expanded their workforce from eight to over 100 employees and secured over $95 million in third-party investments into their technology. This influx of interest and sales can be partially attributed to the perceived scientific rigor associated with NOAA’s involvement in Saildrone’s product development. The economic benefits of Saildrone’s technology continue to increase– in October 2021, Saildrone announced the close of its $100 million Series C funding round. The company’s continued growth and success is creating jobs in several industries and is a significant asset for U.S. economies, especially in areas where Saildrones are created and deployed. While the NOAA-Saildrone partnership has been particularly successful, the cumulative impact of more than 50 active NOAA CRADAs underway cannot be overstated from either a scientific or an economic perspective. The collaborations increase NOAA’s capacity to do scientific research, while also stimulating technological innovation and generating broad economic value for the U.S. economy, the global New Blue Economy, and individual U.S. businesses. This economic impact was particularly important during the global COVID pandemic, so it is especially notable that NOAA reached its highest-ever annual number of new CRADAs during Fiscal Year 2021. Over the next year, TPO hopes to continue to expand NOAA’s use of CRADAs as a way to create partnerships. TPO is working with NOAA scientists and engineers to help them evaluate how a CRADA or other type of research partnership can most effectively support their research objectives. TPO also serves as the lead of the Partnerships Working Group under the Science and Technology Synergy Committee of the NOAA Science Council. TPO will continue to highlight the many ways that public-private partnerships support NOAA’s mission and stimulate innovation of new products bound for the commercial market. As scientific research is called upon to inform solutions for some of society’s most pressing challenges, partnerships are essential and CRADAs unlock enormous potential for collaborative problem-solving and innovation.