A Journey Back in History

In March, I had the distinct privilege of traveling to England with our underwater robotics client, Hydroid, as they undertook a mission to capture the first high-definition sonar images of two American ships that were sunk during World War II.

In the months leading up to the D-Day invasion, a series of secret rehearsals for the landings was held along the Southern coast of England, in an area known as Slapton Sands. The practice for Utah Beach was code named Exercise Tiger, and took place from November 1943 - April 1944. In the early hours of April 28, 1944, a convoy of Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) was traveling in the English Channel toward the practice landing area when it came under torpedo attack by German e-boats. Two of the LSTs, 507 and 531, were hit and sunk. A third LST, 289, was also hit but managed to make it back to shore, though only after its crew suffered numerous deaths and casualties. In all, 749 soldiers died that night, and 946 in total during Exercise Tiger; more than the number of lives lost at the actual invasion at Utah Beach weeks later. It was one of the deadliest days in World War II, yet most people have never heard about it. Due to the strict secrecy of Exercise Tiger at the time so as not to jeopardize the D-Day invasion, the tragedy is often referred to as “forgotten” and the deaths of the soldiers as “the quiet sacrifice.”

Photo: REMUS 100 AUV on deck before launching. Photo courtesy of Hydroid, Inc.
Photo: REMUS 100 AUV on deck before launching. Photo courtesy of Hydroid, Inc.

This April marked 70 years since the tragedy and, as a way to commemorate the anniversary and the hundreds of lives lost, Massachusetts-based Hydroid embarked on a journey to the English Channel to survey the two sunken ships. This was the first time in history that an underwater robot, or autonomous underwater vehicle, had been used to explore the area. Hydroid was making history, and I was there to experience it. Even more special was the fact that my grandfather had actually participated in Exercise Fabius, the rehearsal for Omaha Beach which took place just a few days after the Exercise Tiger tragedy. At just 19 years old, he was the Chief Motor Machinist’s Mate on Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) 510. He passed away in 2009, so standing where he stood 70 years ago was beyond incredible.

As part of this commemorative mission, a major goal for Hydroid was to help tell the story of Exercise Tiger, and inform future generations of the secret sacrifices made. While Hydroid didn’t crave media attention for their efforts, media coverage was essential in telling this forgotten story. Months of preparation went into forming a media plan, including ideal timing, desired targets and key multimedia assets. We pored over images from the mission, and footage that our photographer had captured. We compiled a video to help tell the story of the history, the mission and the technology, and spent hours analyzing which type of wire service to use for the distribution.

Geoswath scan of LST 531 taken from the REMUS 100
Geoswath scan of LST 531 taken from the REMUS 100

The efforts culminated with our international media outreach last week and the attention completely exceeded both our and Hydroid’s expectations. The story was picked up by more than 600 media outlets, and the images and videos were viewed and downloaded more than 17,000 times. The Associated Press, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, NBCNews.com, The Boston Globe, FOX News, Huffington Post, Daily Mail; those were just some of the prominent outlets that ran the story, and the list goes on and on. I am so proud of Hydroid’s and Greenough’s collective efforts on this project but, media aside, it has been a tremendous honor to be a part of this very special and historic mission. Despite the quiet sacrifice made by 946 servicemen during Exercise Tiger 70 years ago, Hydroid’s mission truly commemorated those who lost their lives, and helped to ensure that they are always remembered, never forgotten.

Contributed by Account Supervisor Rachel Vaccari. Follow her on Twitter: @Rachel_Vaccari. 

Robotics: The Next Frontier for Explorers

The Massachusetts robotics industry has been attracting attention recently, and deservedly so. Last month, the Boston Globe reported that the state has almost 100 robotics companies and 35 robotics research and design programs. Michael Gennert of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute – the first school in the country to offer an undergraduate degree program in robotic engineering – noted that “Massachusetts has shipped more robots than anywhere else in the world.” From Rethink Robotics’s Baxter, which can work right alongside employees on an assembly line; to Hydroid’s REMUS 6000, which was used in the reconnaissance mission of the Air France Flight-447 crash; to Boston Dynamics’s BigDog, which can carry up to 340 pounds across rough terrain (and is strangely reminiscent of that spidery machine that takes Maurice away in Beauty and the Beast), Massachusetts is creating some pretty impressive technology.

Photo: Alvin illuminates the fallen foremast of the Titanic wreck - Source: David Valenzuela's Flickr account - farm6.staticflickr.com
Photo: Alvin illuminates the fallen foremast of the Titanic wreck - Source: David Valenzuela's Flickr account - farm6.staticflickr.com

In a report released last month, the Mass Technology Leadership Council highlighted that 18 new robotics start-ups have been created in Massachusetts since 2008; and even in a down economy, 900 new MA-based robotics jobs have been created in the last four years. But besides the obvious attraction to an industry that’s growing rather than slumping, robotics may be the new frontier for those drawn to the idea of exploration. Baby boomers grew up wanting to be astronauts after watching Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walk on the moon; the next generation watched the robotic submersibles in the underwater footage in Titanic (aka the Navy and WHOIs’ Alvin) and more recently, the Mars rover on its mission to explore Mars’ surface.

Robots are allowing for exploration that could never have been imagined in past decades. Robotic technologies can withstand the physical pressure of being miles underwater, to search for lost wreckages or map deep sea geography. They can go without oxygen to analyze the terrain of other planets. And while they’re not surveying the new environment on foot like explorers of the past, the engineers who design and operate these devices are the first to discover, investigate and document their uncharted territory. It’s a dream career for modern-day Lewis and Clarks.

Massachusetts has the perfect set-up for fostering the robotics industry. World class universities and engineering programs, in combination with research institutes, venture capital firms and the success of established robotics companies will keep our state a hotbed for robotic development. Add in the excitement and allure of exploring the unknown and I don’t think our fascination with robotics will wane anytime soon.

Lucy Muscarella is a Consultant at Greenough. Follow her on Twitter@lucymuscarella

Governor’s Life Sciences Focus Will Benefit the Bay State

Governor Deval Patrick has had a few solid wins of late. At the risk of sounding partisan, the Governor’s varying initiatives to create new jobs is good news for all Massachusetts residents. Whether he’s rallying the clean/green sector through the Green Communities Act, encouraging the growth of the Bay State robotics industry or pushing big data as the next Massachusetts IT sector, his various initiatives to help the local economy recover are encouraging.

Last week the Governor attended the grand opening of a new Thermo Fisher Scientific Center for Excellence in Tewksbury. The facility promises to add another 100 jobs in research, development and manufacturing over the next five years. The Tewksbury ribbon-cutting ceremony marks another event in a series of announcements preceding this week’s BIO International Convention at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.

Back in 2008, the Governor inked a 10-year, $1 billion investment package designed to spur research, investment, innovation and commercialization in the Bay State’s life sciences industry. Apparently it’s working: The Massachusetts Biotechnology Council reports that R&D jobs in Massachusetts increased from 46,380 in 2008 to 48,647 in 2010. The biopharma sector has seen more than 52 percent job growth since 2001, and statewide more than 80,000 employees currently work in life sciences or related industries.

Many experts believe that number will increase as more companies—especially European-based biotechnology and life science players--set up local operations in Massachusetts. In fact, “at least 15 companies from Europe have set up shop or expanded operations in the Bay State over the past four years,” according to a recent article in the Boston Globe.

No matter how you cut it, this is great news for Bay State businesses, consumers and job seekers. Keep up the great work, Governor.

Barbara Call is director of content at Greenough.

A Robot in Every Home

The South Korean government has a lofty goal—it wants to put a robot in every house by 2020. As part of this grand high-tech plan, which is designed, in part, to protect South Korea’s economy for the future, the Government is considering investing hundreds of millions of dollars to build a robotics innovation center in one of three locations: Massachusetts, Georgia or the west coast. If the South Korean Government selects the Bay State (timing TBD), the upside would be huge—an enormous influx of capital would help drive local robotics innovation and product development, two activities that are already happening in at least two universities (Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Worcester Polytechnic Institute) as well as at dozens of startups around New England.

Equally important is the impact such a visionary investment would have on creating jobs.

While traditional New England manufacturing operations for such industries as shoes and toys has moved offshore, advanced manufacturing, which the robotics industry requires, creates new, high-paying jobs. In fact, advanced manufacturing is the fourth largest employer in the Bay State, according to Ted Acworth, founder and CEO of Artiac, speaking at a recent Robotics Cluster gathering sponsored by the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council.

Earlier this spring executives from several local robotics companies and state legislators hosted a South Korean delegation in order to “pitch” the Bay State as the perfect location for the new center; next month delegates and legislators are expected to dine with executives from local robotics companies in order to continue the conversation.

It goes without saying that all robotics companies in and around Massachusetts, from HydroidiRobot and Harvest Automation to Symbiotic and Heartland Robotics, stand to benefit from this potential development, as does our economy (new high-paying jobs equals stronger local economy).

Naturally I hope the South Korean Government selects the Bay State for its new center. And I encourage everyone—at robotics companies or otherwise—to get involved, if you can, with whatever it takes to win this prize. But at the end of the day, even if the South Koreans decide to build elsewhere, the new attention on the topic of robotics will only help fertilize this budding business. Layer in Amazon.com’s recent purchase of Kiva Systems for $775 million and I believe we’re sitting on a rocket ship that’s about to take off. And yes—I can see robots driving that rocketship to Mars and beyond, can’t you?

Barbara Call is director of content at Greenough. Follow her on Twitter @BarbaraCall1