Success Story: Watershed winter: Aquahacking, ROV training & FRIC updates

February 21, 2024

Photos of Aquahacking logo, NMC Great Lakes Water Studies Institute program students, an underwater ROV and the new Freshwater Research and Innovation Center
Three projects currently surging forward at NMC are propelling a blue economy built upon the Grand Traverse area’s most valuable resource — fresh water — from vision to reality.

  • From a global field, ten finalist teams were announced Tuesday in the AquaHacking the Great Lakes Challenge, co-hosted by NMC and Aqua Action, a Montreal-based nonprofit. One finalist team, Wave Lumina, is based in Traverse City. All 10 finalists will visit Traverse City in March to compete for the top three prizes of $20,000, $10,000 and $5,000 in seed funding.
  • Also next month, Great Lakes Water Studies Institute Director Hans Van Sumeren and John Lutchko, GLWSI program manager, will travel to New Jersey to deliver NMC’s first session of customized underwater ROV operator training as professional development. “(NMC) is looked at as the premier provider of both academic programs and professional type training,” Van Sumeren said. (NMC assets and facilities are shown above, top right and lower left.)
  • The Freshwater Research and Innovation Center (FRIC), a partnership between NMC and four other entities at the Discovery Center and Pier in Greilickville, is refining architectural plans, construction timeline and discussing with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation whether the project could anchor a BlueTech Innovation Zone. (Architectural rendering shown above, bottom right.)

“This would encourage businesses to relocate and encourage collaboration for testing and development of new products,” Jason Slade, NMC vice president for strategic initiatives, said of the zone.

Products like the sensor that put Traverse City startup Wave Lumina into the AquaHacking finals. The company’s portable field sensor detects ultra-low levels of PFAS and other chemicals, also known as forever chemicals and linked to a long list of health hazards.

“This competition has been a wonderful opportunity for early-stage entrepreneurs in the blue economy space to develop their ideas,” said Vernon Lalone, managing director for Wave Lumina and an Elk Rapids High School graduate. “All this energy aligns incredibly well with research NMC is doing now, the Freshwater Research & Innovation Center, and the local innovation and entrepreneurial support systems like NMC, 20Fathoms, and Traverse Connect.”

The AquaHacking challenge and the FRIC are new facets to the freshwater expertise that NMC has honed over the past two decades, since the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute was founded. WSI coordinator Matt Hirsch is one of the water issue leaders for the challenge, which will convene the 10 finalist teams – three from Michigan, one from Philadelphia and six from Canada – March 8-10 for a water leadership expedition.

“It really represents the collective expertise that we house that is considered the benchmark in the nation,” said Van Sumeren. The training he’ll deliver in New Jersey grew out of curriculum originally written for NMC’s bachelor’s degree in Marine Technology.

“We’re the only school that really does this, that focuses on these applied technical skills for the blue economy workforce,” Van Sumeren said.

His audience in New Jersey — two groups of 15 in March and April — will be commercial divers working in the East Coast’s growing offshore wind energy market.

“These installations require significant amounts of inspection,” Van Sumeren said. “The ROV represents a new way for these divers to engage in the industry appropriately.”

Van Sumeren and Lutchko have conducted ROV training with students as far as away as China, where they’ll return in person next year. Due to China’s COVID restrictions, training was last run in 2022 and done virtually. The partnership with Yellow River Conservancy Technical Institute will resume virtually this fall with 60 students, the largest class to date, and continue in person in spring 2025.

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