Big plans for Ocean Alliance

GLOUCESTER – Just outside the faded red buildings of the former Tarr and Wonson paint factory on Rocky Neck, new oceanographic technology is taking flight.

On a foggy summer morning, a small robotic drone designed for whale research buzzes and swoops overhead. It is a high-flying sign that the once-neglected site is springing back to life under the oversight of conservation nonprofit Ocean Alliance.

“It’s very exciting, where we’re going with the robotics,” said Iain Kerr, the group’s chief executive. “This is really a new generation in oceanography.”

PaintfactorySlightly more than a year after moving in, Ocean Alliance is realizing its plans to restore the historic waterfront property, long considered an icon of Gloucester’s maritime industry; develop advanced robotic research tools; and become an educational resource for the community.

A robotics lab, which arrived in July, provides the alliance and its partner, Needham’s Olin College of Engineering, the space and tools to develop drones for whale research.

The lab is housed in a converted shipping container once used as a pop-up retail shop by the athletic-wear company Puma. Situated in the alliance parking lot, the container is lined with wood floors and walls; a large parallelogram-shaped window breaks up the front wall.

The space will make it easier for the alliance and Olin to continue work on the drone they affectionately call the SnotBot. This small, automated copter is intended to fly close enough to whales that it can collect samples of the creatures’ blowhole spray to be analyzed for bacteria, DNA, and hormones.

The lab will be outfitted with tools such as soldering irons, 3-D printers, and drone flight simulators to help engineers and students create more reliable, durable, and effective robots. The goal is to create an affordable, easy-to-use drone that can collect data and transmit the information to a computer on land or on a ship. And it must be easy to fly.

“Our ultimate goal is to build an autonomous air vehicle that a sleep-deprived, seasick person can operate,” said Andrew Bennett, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Olin. “Having a trained roboticist on site with you shouldn’t be necessary.”

Once the technology is developed, Bennett said, it will have plenty of marine science applications beyond whale research. He has already started talking with other groups interested in using the drones to track tuna populations and survey oyster reefs, he said.

Eventually, Kerr intends to start a robotics club that would provide instruction and encouragement to adults and students interested in learning more about the field.

“The idea is to support STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education,” Kerr said.

Even as it gets the new lab up and running, Ocean Alliance is also working on the restoration of the paint factory. The seven buildings – built in the 1870s – were once home to the Tarr and Wonson Paint Manufactory, which produced barnacle-resistant copper paint for use on boats.

The company closed in the 1980s and the buildings – some clad in brick, others in decaying clapboards – stood vacant for 30 years. Bricks cracked, clapboards began to chip and rot, on the side of the building the white words “Copper Paint” faded.

In 2008, Ocean Alliance bought the property for $2 million, helped by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation. Initial renovations had to be completed before the group was able to move in.

Over the years, the paint production process caused significant contamination to the property. Kerr, however, sees the situation as a chance for Ocean Alliance to contribute even more to its environmental mission by cleaning up the land.

“It’s exciting that this is a polluted site,” he said.

Thus far, the alliance has refurbished one of the buildings, a sturdy brick structure that now houses its administrative offices. Inside, the space is light, open and modern, with decorations of a decidedly cetacean bent: orca paintings, whale carvings, antique whaling maps.

The restoration of the factory’s 60-foot chimney has just been completed as well, and work has begun on a second building.

Another $4 million will be needed to achieve the remaining renovations at the site, Kerr said. Two of the structures were too dilapidated to be restored and have been razed. The group plans to build new structures of the same dimensions in their place.

Kerr promises to keep the buildings as true to their history as possible. “We’re going to do everything in our power to keep the outside as iconic as we can,” he said.

He hopes to have renovations complete and a dock built by next spring.

The city has embraced Ocean Alliance. With the ongoing decline of the fishing industry, city leaders have been looking for ways to keep the Gloucester waterfront active and thriving. They are encouraging traditional uses, such as seafood processing and tourism, as well as newer industries such as marine science and technology.

Ocean Alliance’s plans to both restore a historic property and encourage scientific innovation on the waterfront are a perfect match for these goals, said Gloucester community development director Tom Daniel.

“The fact that they’re taking an iconic property and putting it back into productive use and restoring it is kind of icing on the cake,” he said.

This story originally appeared in The Boston Globe on August 3, 2014. Click here for the story and a photo gallery.

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