UD officials: Blue tech partnership ideal for Lewes

Project would boost robotics, wind power, aquaculture
January 3, 2023

The history of Lewes cannot be written without mentioning its relationship with water, but what about its future? 

Project ABLE (Align, Build, Leverage and Expand) is developing a Blue Economy Tech Center partnership between academia, government and commercial entities. It plans to use a network of autonomous systems to develop and test other autonomous systems that are focused on addressing environmental and energy needs. The initiative hopes to promote economic development, workforce development and career training in the Lewes area. The kickoff event was held Dec. 20 at the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment. 

“The poultry industry in Delaware didn’t just happen overnight [and] the DuPont chemical industry didn’t just happen overnight,” said University of Delaware’s Arthur Trembanis. “Those came over years of sustained interest and commitment to establish all this infrastructure.”

Officials said interdisciplinary, multi-university, public and private partnerships are critical for a successful launch. Project ABLE involves researchers from universities, environmental robotics, remote sensing, mechanical engineering and coastal oceanography collaborating with commercial businesses and government agencies. Two-year funding began for the project Oct. 1.

The University of Delaware and Delaware State University, along with a few other schools, are working with commercial businesses such as Hydronalix and Liquid Robotics, and agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Their goal is to create an attractive destination for the blue economy. Trembanis said he believes Lewes is the right location, and the time to act is now. 

“We see Delaware [as] having such a unique physical location,” Trembanis said.

A blue economy is a holistic approach to capitalizing on a region’s access to water. The types of industries that could benefit from a blue economy vary according to the geographical and marine characteristics of the region. UD’s Rob Nicholson said the blue economy in Lewes would rely on three different sectors – robotics, wind power and aquaculture – but other industries could be boosted if each prospers.

Students, industry leaders and government officials gathered inside the Virden Center for a brief overview of the project before embarking on a tour of the robotics discovery lab and marine operations. Workshops led by Trembanis, Nicholson and Sagax founder Kirsten McGregor allowed participants to break out in groups and analyze various topics following the tour. McGregor discovered the majority of attendees would like experts to focus on Sussex County and workforce training. 

During the workshops, participants discussed the advantages, disadvantages and challenges within the region as they pertain to a blue economy. Workforce development and training were heavily emphasized. Manufacturing, testing and developing of technology could bring a few jobs to the area, but supporting infrastructure for those sectors could also see growth.

Ocean Infinity entered into a memorandum of understanding with the University of Delaware in 2019 that put the private company’s fleet of autonomous robots in the hands of faculty and staff at the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment. The mutually beneficial partnership is similar to what Project ABLE is attempting to establish throughout the Cape Region. The group spearheading the initiative would like Lewes to be a permanent destination for robotics companies and other sectors of the blue economy. 

Underwater robots can document and map areas of the sea floor for research and offshore wind projects. Offshore wind is a sector of the blue economy, but it relies on robotics for pertinent site information. Implementing robots instead of manned crews reduces the cost associated with an expedition. 

Further documenting the Delaware Bay and its sea floor could also benefit other industries. Oysters from the Delaware Bay are highly sought after. Delaware Bay aquaculture, farming in the water, has witnessed an increase in demand over the last few years, Nicholson said. NOAA believes the practice is an environmentally responsible source of food and commercial production that helps to create healthier habitats and is used to rebuild stocks of species. A blue economy is different from a green economy, but comes with the same emphasis on responsibility and sustainability. Watermen might be able to use researchers’ data before installing oyster farms or harvesting other types of fish.

Lewes Deputy Mayor Khalil Saliba said he believes the role the City of Lewes plays in helping foster the growth of the blue economy could be through specialized zoning. Saliba mentioned that UD’s housing on Sussex Drive could be expanded. City Manager Ann Marie Townshend said Lewes would want to help facilitate the growth of the blue economy and not be a roadblock to prosperity. 

More information about the initiative is available at


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