Right whale and calf from above.
The endangered right whale has been a species of particular concern in areas targeted for offshore wind development. Credit: NOAA / Creative Commons

Three companies are preparing to market new ways to protect marine animals near offshore wind installations, thanks to support from the country’s first large-scale offshore wind farm and a Massachusetts-based climate technology incubator.

Companies building night-vision cameras, autonomous watercraft, and weather-resistant aerial drones all participated in the Offshore Wind Challenge. The six-month accelerator program provided an intensive education in offshore wind, technology mentorship, and access to building and testing facilities. The participants also received $35,000 to fund their work from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. 

The result was three new products that industry insiders say offer promising solutions to protect whales and other marine mammals during offshore turbine construction and operations. 

The challenge was a partnership between Greentown Labs, a startup incubator based in Somerville, Massachusetts, and Vineyard Wind, which recently received federal approval for its 62-turbine installation. The goal was to address obstacles faced by the United States’ nascent offshore wind sector, which faces different circumstances than the more mature European industry, said Greentown Labs’ CEO Emily Reichert.

“There’s obviously a different set of ocean conditions, a different set of marine life, and different weather conditions that might pose unique challenges that have not been addressed before,” she said. “In particular, there are marine mammals that are very much sharing the same waters as our future wind farms, so we have to think about, ‘How do these things exist in harmony with each other?’” 

Over the past several years, as large-scale offshore wind has moved closer to reality in the United States, a major concern has been the possibility of disrupting the habitats or migratory patterns of marine mammals. The North Atlantic right whale has been a species of particular concern, as fewer than 400 individuals remain and, in recent years, they have been increasingly likely to gather in areas targeted for offshore wind development. 

In addition to federal environmental requirements for protecting marine mammals, Vineyard Wind also struck a deal with conservation groups that calls for careful acoustic and visual monitoring of the waters around the development for much of the year. Other developers are also looking at ways to mitigate the potential impact on marine life. 

Vineyard Wind and Greentown Labs saw these circumstances as an opportunity for innovation. 

Though some 60 companies applied for the Offshore Wind Challenge, just three were ultimately selected. They were chosen both for the potential of their technology and the way their solutions complemented each other, said Tiffany Ferreira, development operations manager for Vineyard Wind.

“The three we selected really encompassed what we saw as pieces of a larger system of offshore environmental monitoring,” she said.

Conservation advocates have hailed the program as part of the necessary development of new strategies for achieving the dual goals of generating clean energy and protecting endangered species. 

“Our oceans are changing and we need new technologies to help us track where marine mammals are and how they are using their habitat in near-real time,” said Francine Kershaw, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the three groups involved in Vineyard Wind’s agreement to monitor marine mammal activity.

Rhode Island-based Night Vision Technology Solutions, or NVTS, was selected to develop a way to use their night-vision cameras to detect marine mammals at significant distances. Though the company is 12 years old, its client base is mostly defense and military organizations. It is new to the offshore wind space. 

The company used the resources offered by the challenge to build a camera and develop an artificial intelligence processing board, creating a system tailored to the task of sensing and automatically identifying marine mammals. 

“Now we have a template for a marine mammal recognition program that’s married to a sophisticated camera platform and hardware,” said Julie Janson, who does new business development for the company.

Open Ocean Robotics, from British Columbia in Canada, builds solar-powered, autonomous boats that can withstand extreme seas. The vessels can be customized with a range of sensors for applications including the detection of illegal fishing and environmental data collection. The data gathered can then be transmitted to observers in real time. 

As part of the Offshore Wind Challenge, the company for the first time mounted a hydrophone to one of its boats and did extensive testing to determine whether the system could accurately identify the sounds of marine mammals and to understand the range at which it worked best. The company discovered its hydrophone-equipped vessels were better at detecting whale activity than a standard, stationary hydrophone. 

And the process helped the company target and prepare with confidence for an entirely new market segment, said co-founder Julie Angus.

“Our platform is very effective at marine mammal monitoring,” she said. “It’s something that’s very high on our radar now and an industry that is very much aligned with our company goals.”

The third participant, SICDrone of Peabody, Massachusetts, makes aerial drones that are able to fly in harsh weather, allowing them to survey for marine mammal activity even in inclement conditions. During the challenge, the company used Greentown Labs’ machine shop to customize its drone and received guidance from Vineyard Wind mentors. SICDrone is also sharing the data it collects with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help the agency develop regulations for the use of drones in marine mammal monitoring. 

The formal portion of the Offshore Wind Challenge wrapped up in February, and all three companies are continuing to hone their new products to pursue the offshore wind market. It is a bit too soon to be making many sales, they said, as the first offshore wind projects haven’t even begun construction yet, but the companies are in ongoing conversations with developers and other stakeholders as they prepare for the market to accelerate. 

“Innovative technologies like ours and the others involved in this challenge can really play an important role in improving the safety and the affordability of operations in the offshore wind industry,” Angus said.

Sarah is a longtime journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe, TheAtlantic.com, Slate, and other publications. Based in Gloucester, Sarah covers New England.