Newburyport scientist’s drone aimed at helping seaweed farmers

[USA] Over the past couple of years, drones have been utilized more and more, not only for taking stunning bird’s eye view photographs, but to boost productivity across many industries. Now, one Newburyport resident is preparing to build an aquatic drone that could make a major impact in the world of seaweed farming.

Clifford “Cliff” Goudey, head of C.A Goudey and Associates, which he operates from his home on Marlborough Street, has received a grant of $406,549 from the U.S. Department of Energy through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, to design and construct an autonomous “drone tug” to aid with large-scale seaweed, or macroalgae, farming systems.

Goudey is one of 18 grant recipients selected to participate in the DOE’s Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources (MARINER) program, which was created to help the U.S. become a leading producer of seaweed, helping to improve “energy security and economic competitiveness.”

Seaweed can be used as raw material for domestic transportation fuels, chemicals and other commercial products. According to ARPA-E Acting Director Eric Rohlfing, the United States’ offshore resources could allow the country to produce enough seaweed to handle “as much as 10 percent of our transportation fuel.”

Goudey’s drone is aimed at operating with energy efficiency to handle aquatic farming chores, acting as an autonomous tractor to tow large amounts of seaweed at low speeds to processing locations, which will ultimately cut costs and help the industry to grow, in theory.

“The thrust of the work being done right now is to produce seaweed in a cheap enough way so that it can compete on the energy market, so the transportation and operation costs offshore are important,” said Goudey, who studied aquaculture for two decades as an MIT research engineer.

“Not having people onboard [the ocean-going tug] is probably the most important part because towing the seaweed at slow speeds is such a long process.”

According to Goudey, his drone would require no crew, and would call for a $100,000 capital cost, compared to $2.5 million for a manned vessel. It would also reduce operating costs from $4,000 to $50 per day, and would boost thrust power up to eight fold.

His work on the drone will begin in December and continue over three years, in which the device will be designed, built and tested at sea.

“Hopefully the trial period can take place locally,” said Goudey. “The year three plan is to have it working in conjunction with an offshore kelp farm, likely in Nantucket Sound.

In the meantime, he’s hard at work on a separate project also aimed at improving the seaweed farming industry.

Working closely with Dan Wilson Jr. of Wilson Welding in Salisbury, Goudey is developing a system that would help seaweed farmers overcome common space limitations imposed by the current crop-growing process, which involves stringing lengths of rope seeded with young plants through the water.

Using long trusses, Goudey’s new system would allow farmers to run more lines within their leased area on the ocean floor.

Goudey said he is happy to receive funding for his project, and is glad to be involved with a growth industry that he said has “no negative environmental impact.”

“The idea of growing seaweed is something that has a lot of appeal because there’s no question that it’s a benefit to the environment because of the nature of the growing process,” said Goudey.

“Particularly in light of the increase of carbon dioxide levels in the ocean, growing anything helps get those levels back to normal and reduce ocean acidification.”


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