From the Seafloor to the Drugstore: Inventor Amy Wright on Marine Natural Products
Chemicals in marine organisms show promise for new medicines. Inventor Amy Wright is discovering why.
Those were the glory days. Amy Wright would plop down into the seat inside a giant acrylic dome to be submerged 3,000 feet underwater, with a front-row seat on the wonders far below the waters off the Florida coast. It was Wright’s first job as a chemist. She didn’t know it then, but she was riding a wave that would rise from expeditions in the Johnson-Sea-Link submersible vehicles to the breakthrough inventions in medicine she is known for today.
Days spent diving from a research ship and using robotic equipment on a manned submersible vehicle allowed Wright and her collaborators to travel to underwater vistas in the depths where, over the course of the next few decades, they would collect thousands of samples of marine invertebrates, the source materials for marine natural products.
“They had these amazing ships and subs and scuba diving. Who wouldn’t want to do that?” Wright said. “It was great. We got to go some amazing places that I don’t think a lot of people get to go, especially in the subs.”
She was working at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute with her former mentor and a veteran of the field, Ken Rinehart, who was a pioneer of drug discovery from marine sources and one of the first to bring natural products into clinical trials, she said. The Johnson-Sea-Link manned submersibles owned by Harbor Branch were invaluable for uncovering useful drug sources from the sea.
“They had decided, here are these amazing subs, they can go collect amazing stuff, how do we use them?” Wright said.
Since then, Wright has been the common denominator on a series of successful projects that have figured out how to use source materials from the sea to create new biological technologies that might hold the answers to society’s most vexing diseases like cancer, tuberculosis, Alzheimer’s, malaria and heart disease.
The samples collected over nearly half a century now total 31,500 specimens, including benthic marine invertebrates and macroalgae, or seaweed, molluscs, corals, sponges and soft sponges, tunicates and marine microbes. Understanding the structure and function of these compounds is Wright’s job.
She uses the samples like we use coffee grounds, extracting chemical compounds the way we extract caffeine in our brew, only she uses a liquid much stronger than water, and she extracts hundreds of natural products from each sample. The extract is concentrated into a goo or powder, which is then separated out into the compounds it contains, leaving pure samples that can be isolated, enhanced, and tested to see if they are useful as molecular soldiers. To be successful, samples have to show biological activity, like the ability to battle cancer in tricky ways, by undercutting the survival of mutant cells with the right behaviors at the cellular level.
“We have to get enough compound and enough data to convince a company that they want to invest.”
But before they can test how a compound behaves in the face of cancer or heart disease, the scientists need enough of the compound to work with, and they need a pure version, without any toxins.
It can be challenging, Wright said, “to get enough compound and enough data to convince a company that they want to invest,” in further developing a medicine.
Wright has become an expert at these separation methods, fractionating enriched compounds out from one another like a patient mother untangling a knotted ponytail one hair at a time. But Wright uses chromatography—a method similar to pulling the colors out of a black ink spot by letting water soak upward on a piece of paper, leaving trails of color behind. This capillary absorption method separates the compounds from one another so she can see how many compounds are within a single sample.
Purifying the compounds is important because mixed in with the useful ones, there are some that are toxic. In some cases, “no toxicity is allowed,” Wright said.
“An Alzheimer’s drug [would be taken for a long time], so if there’s any hint of toxicity, you’re not going to be able to use that drug.”
From the Seafloor to the Drugstore
One big bottleneck on the road from the seafloor to clinical trials for new drugs using marine products is having enough of the compound. One sample of sponge might only produce a few micrograms of a compound, while kilograms of it are needed to get to a successful product, Wright said. She is clearly insistent upon conservation.
“When you extrapolate up how much of the organism you would have to be able to either grow or collect, there’s not that much organism [available to us], and it wouldn’t be environmentally sound to [collect too much],” she said.
There are options for creating synthetic versions based on the molecular model of the compound, but finding a compound that performs a useful function is the first step. How cancer cells behave is often not understood until after researchers find a compound that effectively stops them, so synthetic designs can only serve to augment a discovery, not replace it.
Solutions depend on testing new, unique compounds and natural products derived from hundreds of different marine organisms. It is a giant game of trial and error, testing what works and what doesn’t.
The process is further complicated by the fact that there are often hundreds of compounds in a single organism, swirled together in a biological chemical mixture. Some labs Wright works with can run thousands of assays, or biological activity tests, per hour. But mixtures of compounds present a problem for those labs.
“If we want to work with groups like this, we have to change how we work,” Wright said at a 2013 lecture. Much of Wright’s work is in untangling this mixture problem, separating out the compounds from one another so that pure samples are available in the form of enriched compounds.
The pure versions live in the Harbor Branch Peak Library (named for the peaks on chromatographs that show there might be an interesting compound present), and Wright accepts proposals from collaborators who think they might be able to use some of the compounds in their research. For example, she has sent materials to scientists working on drugs to treat complications related to stroke, heart disease, cancer, fibrosis, Alzheimer’s, tuberculosis, malaria, and the waterborne parasite cryptosporidium.
But, each collaborator who taps into the collection depletes the supply a little more. Some need small amounts to test, others need more. How much material a project proposes to use factors into Wright’s decision whether to collaborate. And, each collaboration for use of the materials also requires a new funding source.
Harbor Branch today runs largely on grants, and Wright has become as much of a genius at earning grants as she has patents. She holds 33 U.S. patents to date, each of them for some compound with a particular activity that is useful on the molecular level at battling some disease’s behavior.
While Wright separates compounds and maps out their structures, collaborators work to modify these compounds so they will function more like drugs—to be stable, to stay in the bloodstream longer or to enter the cell better.
Modeling New Medicines
Today medicine is more complicated that just trying to find something to kill the cancer cells, Wright said. It is more nuanced, and researchers are working on finding a compound, for example, that reduces the cancer cell’s production of a protein it needs to survive, or a compound that gives your immune cells a new signal to recognize cancer cells instead of ignoring their camouflage.
When a natural marine product works, Wright’s job is to then figure out exactly how it works and what it is doing—the details of its biological activity—as well as its structure. Chemical structure maps look like a cross section of a honey bee’s hexagonal hive structure, with six-sided shapes strung together and stretched out across the page. Understanding a marine chemical’s structure is important because it helps isolate one compound from another, like choosing the part of a street map that shows only your neighborhood without the rest of the streets in town.
The chemical structure map helps scientists separate the compound out to its pure form apart from the rest of the material extracted from an organism. But structure is also important because it provides synthetic chemists, who want to try to recreate the compound, a picture of the compound’s molecular infrastructure, which can then be mimicked to create a synthetic version or altered to give the compound characteristics that are more useful for medicines.
In place of having endless amounts of material, Wright’s fellow scientists have other options, including organic synthesis to make copies of the compounds in the laboratory, creating invertebrate cell cultures to grow the cells of sponges, fermenting compounds that might be made by microbes living in the marine organism, or using biosynthesis techniques to pull out genes that make the compounds.
“We think some of the compounds are not actually made by the sponge itself, but may be made by microorganisms, bacteria that live inside the sponge,” Wright said. “So if we could ferment those bacteria, then it would be similar to the way that they make penicillin or erythromycin.”
Though fermentation is proving difficult, for those compounds produced that way, it would provide a solution for growing large amounts in huge fermentors similar to those at a microbrewery. Other options exist on the frontier of medical and biological science, Wright said.
“We need to look for other options, either synthesis or to try to find the microbes from that organism that can make it, or even just get the genes that are responsible for making it and then try to get that into [a host organism]… a genetically engineered microbe that can pump out the compound,” Wright said.
Some of Wright’s collaborators are also working on solutions to battle the “superbug”, an antibiotic-resistant bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA. The solution they extracted from a sponge of the genus Spongosorites—a compound they named dragmacidin G—has shown promising results including “inhibition of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Plasmodium falciparum, and a panel of pancreatic cancer cell lines,” according to their paper published in the journal Marine Drugs this year. (You can read the full text here.)
Freezer Full of Gold
At Harbor Branch, in a freezer a quarter of the size of a large conference hall, sit 31,500 samples of marine organisms, including more than 15,000 that are large enough to test. The collection also includes 19,000 marine microbes.
“Old [specimens] that we never thought were interesting, now it turns out, some of them are interesting. These are totally new ways of approaching cancer cells. I figure we need to save it for the future,” Wright said. “We find new information about diseases every day, and new ways that maybe we could intervene that maybe we never knew about before, so you want to make sure that you’ve saved [material] for that new assay.”
Wright’s conservation sensibilities have served the collection well. For each organism collected, only a small piece is cut off for testing. The rest is frozen for future use.
Today, in place of the Johnson-Sea-Link submersibles with their giant acrylic domes to carry people underwater, Harbor Branch uses unmanned remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that are tethered to the ship and operated by drivers using cameras to direct its action and collect samples into a basket.
Harbor Branch built the instrument package to be installed on an ROV called Mohawk that is operated by the University of North Carolina in Wilmington with tools similar to the Johnson-Sea-Link instruments. While the tools on the ROV were designed to mimic the function of the Johnson-Sea-Link, Wright says it’s not the same as going down to explore with your own eyes.
“It was always more effective to have a person in the manned submersible because you can see things that you may or may not see with the ROV,” Wright said. But, while looking with your own eyes was optimal, she said she can’t complain about the approximately 200 samples the last ROV expedition brought back to the lab.
There is a documentary component to the process of marine specimen collection. Each sample was archived together with pictures of the organism, its habitat, video of where and how it was collected, characteristics of its environment and plenty of other metadata to go with each sample. This week, Wright and her collaborators earned a $500,000 National Science Foundation grant to process the video from the collection and put much of the data, including video documentation, online so it is more accessible.
“Every time, we find new compounds that we haven’t seen before.”
There are a total of approximately 230,000 marine vertebrates and invertebrates that have been documented as species. And while the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute collection is unique, along with several other large collections around the world, actual numbers of undiscovered species range from two million to 10 million. There is plenty of work left to do to explore and find undiscovered chemicals from marine organisms.
“Every time, we find new compounds that we haven’t seen before. So I imagine for a while people will keep doing that,” Wright said, reflecting on her experience across more than 30 years of diving into deep water habitats. “It can be very rich in organisms, and [many of] those [deep water places around the world] have not been looked at. So I’m sure that people will keep finding stuff.”
—Story by Amelia Jaycen
Amy Wright was inducted this week into the National Academy of Inventors at a ceremony held in Washington, D.C. The Johsnon-Sea-Link manned submersible vehicles were retired in 2011 and are now on display at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.
Virtual Immersion Goes Beyond the Surface with Underwater Drones
Christine Spiten is the 27 year old co-founder and chief global strategist of Blueye Robotics, a company making underwater drones that connect with your smartphone, tablet, laptop or a pair of goggles to explore the marine environment 150 meters underwater.
Sea Technology caught up with Spiten just a few hours after she emerged from an underwater adventure in the fjords of Trondheim Norway, where Blueye Robotics is based, to talk about the company’s debut model, the Pioneer.
We also discussed future development plans and Spiten’s ideas about democratizing access to the ocean to make underwater inspection—whether the hull of a ship, an aquaculture farm, for search-and-rescue, or just for fun—an everyday activity without the need for expensive, heavy equipment or professional crews of divers.
Sea Technology: Christine, tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?
Christine Spiten: I am an engineer with an master of science degree in industrial economics and technology management. I also studied regulation techniques in underwater robotics at the University in Rio, Brazil, and I studied international entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley in California.
As a student, I actively searched for practical applications of all the theory I was learning. I decided to start with my greatest passion: the ocean, which has been an important part of my life since I was very little. Driven by curiosity, I wanted to create a solution that made the ocean available to everyone, to increase knowledge, compassion and protection of the ocean on a global level.
My master’s thesis was about the development of small underwater drones that could be available for everyone. That’s the idea with Blueye Robotics: developing underwater drones that connect to your smart device and bring your eyes down to 150 meters below the surface, allowing you to share that experience with others.
ST: I’m curious about the development of the Blueye Pioneer prototype. I read that you created it in just a few weeks?
CS: Ten weeks after we founded the company, we had a prototype. So that prototype I actually brought with me on an international research expedition across the Atlantic sea where I was one of 14 women investigating marine litter and searching for microplastics. So I was able to take the first prototype with me on this expedition, which was an amazing experience, but also an opportunity for Blueye to prove that we have some technology that is revolutionizing, both in the way that we can use it for research and also for private users.
Check out the video below to see the Blueye Pioneer in the water with the Great Barrier Reef Legacy—and sharks!
Along the way, we had different pilot customers giving us feedback, so the user experience has been in focus the whole time. We want our drones to be fun, easy and intuitive to operate and handle, including the size: they are small enough that you can bring one in your hand luggage when you’re traveling.
So that was the first functioning prototype, and I was able to take it aboard the flight to Africa with me. It was extremely exciting. Since then, the drones have become more efficient, and they are now able to go deeper. The camera quality has improved a lot. They have also become smaller size and easier to handle quite practically.
ST: Tell me more about the start-up of Blueye?
CS: Blueye started with four co-founders back in 2015. We’re still based in Trondheim, the marine technology capital in Norway and one of the world’s largest marine technology hubs. It’s great for us being here. In addition, there’s the closeness to the sea and the fjords. Just a couple hours ago we came in from a trip testing the latest prototype of our drone, and we were able to dive down to 225 m depth, and it’s just beautiful coral. It may be hard to believe it is this lively and colorful below the surface of the dark Arctic waters all the way up in Norway, but it’s really stunning.
ST: Is increasing the depth your next step in development?
CS: Yes. In the future, we will have several models of the Pioneer, both smaller, easier, cheaper ones and also more complex ones that have more sensors and are specialized for different uses.
Just a couple of weeks ago I went down to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. There is a group of scientists called the Great Barrier Reef Legacy who are now trying one of our prototypes on their expeditions in search of super corals. So this is just one example of how scientists can use these drones.
We are also receiving a lot of orders for these drones for professional use within the shipping industry for ship inspection, for aquaculture inspection and for search and rescue. We also have a contract with a Norwegian cruise line that will use it onboard as an activity for their guests. They will have small underwater drones with their expedition team going out in boats, bringing guests with them and having the guests operate the underwater drones, for instance, for whale watching on the expedition cruise.
ST: Tell me about your team. What kind of skills were involved in development of the drones?
CS: We are 19 people today, and that’s a team consisting of software developers, mechanical designers, mechanical engineers and we have very efficient electrical engineers. We are also collaborating with a company that has assisted us on external design of the drone, the design of the app, and the whole user experience. So we are continuing to grow our team. We would like a lot more software developers in the future as the user experience and the software part of the drone will continue to be developed. We have people from Germany, from Spain, Netherlands, Romania, China and Norway.
ST: What does it mean to “democratize” access to the ocean?
CS: I think our whole team are generally passionate about the ocean and dedicated to make this product that will actually open up people’s eyes to the ocean. We are increasingly focused on the oceans worldwide, because people don’t realize that this is the last frontier on earth, and we are all dependent on it. So if we could democratize access to the ocean and enable people to be part of this exploration, I think that’s a story that really attracts people.
ST: Tell me about your vision for consumers and citizens to share data from their drone with marine scientists. How do you foresee that playing out?
CS: You have the ability to share the story through an app or online. You can actually stream the experience while you are outside, you can stream live video over the internet, so a group of people who are not present when you are diving can actually log on and see what’s going on. And, by implementing more sensors on the drone in the future, we are able to actually say something about the condition of the sea. So this is a way that we can contribute to research and marine biology all over the world, by providing data. That’s actually the biggest bottleneck for researchers today is the lack of access to data to be able to say something about the condition of the ocean.
So I think this will be a huge thing in the future. At the moment our software development is focused on how to make this experience exciting for people and to gamify, for instance, the search for trash or microplastics or different marine species when you’re diving. We also have a digital diving mask, so you can put your iPhone into the lens of this mask and truly immerse yourself in this experience.
But there are also practical uses. For instance, when you’re inspecting the hull of your ship, to be able to put this mask on and really close out all disturbances, the sunlight, and really be able to dive down and see underwater. It’s easy to control and you’re actually able to stand still with the help of functions like auto-heading and auto-depth. You can let go of the control buttons with your hands. The ability to do that is really simplifying operation for professionals and also enabling private people to do something they’ve never had the opportunity to do before.
ST: What kind of feedback are you getting?
CS: We have loaned prototypes to partners who say they usually either use divers to go underwater with a camera to inspect the ship or more expensive ROVs that have been used by the industry for decades. When they try out the Blueye Pioneer, it saves time and cost to just throw a drone overboard into the sea and use it to do the same work on really short notice, themselves.
We have a collaboration with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) to test our prototype, and they say this is something that will save them a lot of time, a lot of cost, and make it easier for them to conduct research. On the California coast there are a lot of marine protected areas, and MBARI is responsible for research in this area over time to be able to say year-to-year how marine life is affected by climate change and by human activity. To do the work, they are using divers and big, industrial ROVs.
A normal scuba diver is able to dive down to 80 meters, so just to be able to have an underwater drone like ours that can go down to 150 meters without having to bring along an extra boat with a big ROV and some professionals using it, is helping the scientists perform tests, gather samples and inspect more often, which is exactly what they need.
ST: Tell me about the technology, what’s inside the device. How does it see, how does it swim, what are the components involved?
CS: It has four thrusters, 350 W each, so if you’re operating it along the hull of a ship or a wall in the water or a coral reef, you can move sideways, adjust your position, go up or down. The thrusters keep you stable and give you really good video. It has a 1080 full HD camera that is really light-sensitive, so it gives you the true colors. The battery operates for about two hours, and you can change these batteries if you want to continue and go diving a whole day.
And there’s the cable from the drone up to the surface unit that you can connect onshore or you can have it floating at a buoy. From the surface unit, it uses a wifi signal that goes to your phone, tablet, desktop screen or surface device, making it able to receive live video and transmit the control signal from a game controller. Or, you can use touch-control on your screen or mobile device.
Interview by Amelia Jaycen
- The Great Barrier Reef Legacy is using the Blueye Pioneer drone to learn about coral reef bleaching.
- The Blueye Pioneer drone will be used by The New York Harbor School for their “Billion Oyster Project” in which a billion oysters are placed in the Hudson River to clean the water and restore these native shellfish to the waters. Blueye Robotics drones will be used to monitor the oysters and check the status of the project.
- The Marine Life Studies organization in Monterey, California is working with Blueye Robotics to help them study marine protected areas around Monterey Bay and along the West Coast of the U.S. from Seattle to San Diego.
About Christine Spiten:
Christine Spiten holds an M.Sc in industrial economics and technology management from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, which included robotics courses at UFRJ in Rio, Brazil. Spiten was recognized as one of Norway’s 50 most important female tech founders in 2017 and was a nominated finalist for the Nor-Shipping Young Entrepreneur Award 2017. Watch Spiten’s TED Talk: “Technology’s Impact on Empathy” or visit www.blueyerobotics.com to learn more. Interview has been edited for style and clarity.
How US Coastal Communities Are Building Climate Resilience
According to the Third National Climate Assessment, nearly 5 million people in the coastal U.S. live within 4 ft. of their local high-tide level, and global sea levels are predicted to rise by up to 6.6 ft. by 2100 compared to 1992 measurements. Extreme weather events such as hurricanes, which bring with them flooding, are increasing in frequency and causing devastation along U.S. coasts.
The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) and the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC) recently held a briefing to discuss infrastructure in relation to building resilience in America’s coastal communities. The panel included Nichole Hefty, deputy chief resilience officer at the Regulatory and Economic Resources Department of Miami-Dade County in Florida; Steve Walz, director of the Department of Environmental Programs at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments; and Mark Wilbert, chief resilience officer for the city of Charleston, South Carolina.
South Florida: A Region Comes Together
Hefty gave an overview of South Florida, an area that has been experiencing fluctuations in precipitation patterns and temperature extremes, which affects the regional economy, particularly agriculture and tourism.
“Last year was a pretty challenging year,” she said. Hurricane Irma hit Florida in 2017 as a Category 4 hurricane. “We feel like we really dodged the bullet because if we had been hit directly by a Category 5 hurricane, the damages would have been extremely severe.”
South Florida has been fighting sea level rise, storm surge vulnerability, more frequent king tides and coastal erosion. Scientists have been gathering data to conduct stormwater modeling and predict king tides.
South Florida’s elected officials came together in 2010 and started collaborating on a regional basis to address climate change issues, starting with a regional climate change compact that entails the development of policies, resources, action plans and community outreach. They have developed a unified sea level rise projection for the region to use for planning purposes. The region comes together to look at data and modeling and update projections as needed, relying heavily on the work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and NOAA. The models are used by real estate developers and other stakeholders.
Hefty emphasized that insurance is part of economic resilience. She also highlighted the successes of strengthening infrastructure by changing design standards, raising roadways and installing pumps and berm to adapt to climate change.
DC: The Nation’s Capital Examines Its Rivers
Introducing initiatives in the Washington, D.C., metro area, Walz spoke about how rivers are an essential part of the region’s coastal water system. In the D.C. area, storm modeling is being done to manage risk related to the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. The risk increases as the population grows. Over the next 20 years, 1.2 to 1.3 million people will be added to the 5.3 million people in the D.C. metro area, he said. In addition to risking lives, storm surge and flooding puts national treasures at risk, as well as transportation, energy, water resources and communications.
The region anticipates hotter temperatures and more frequent drought conditions. The current baseline for days hotter than 95° F is about a dozen, and by 2080 the low scenario would be about 80 days with temps hotter than 90° F, Walz said. This means public health concerns, with more code red days for air quality.
The D.C. metro area recognized the need to prepare for the impacts of climate change and has put forth smart growth strategies. USACE has identified areas to address for flood risk mitigation. The coastal flood risk assessment involves storm modeling and planning for infrastructure and emergency response. Northern Virginia has finalized a critical infrastructure roadmap that will be expanded to the full region.
The lessons, according to Walz, are that the scope of success must be defined. This means focusing on: specific sectors and geographic areas, drivers, what impacts to address, raising awareness, defining risk tolerance to determine budget, stakeholder feedback, mainstreaming strategies into comprehensive plans, and communicating the plan to stakeholders.
There is “a lot going on in the local levels. We’re trying to knit it together regionally,” he said, because “the storms don’t stop at the jurisdiction lines.”
Charleston: Constant Flooding in a Small City
Telling the tale of the small southern coastal city of Charleston, S.C., Wilbert began by declaring that Charleston has had a flooding problem since it was founded.
“I think it’s important to understand that resilience is certainly about economics,” he said, bringing up the fact that the Port of Charleston provides $53 billion worth of economic impact to the city every year.
“Just as important for us in the city of Charleston is that resilience is about getting down to the personal level,” he added, mentioning that flooding affects people and their neighborhoods.
From the beginning, the city started filling in its marsh, which has created major problems. Flooding is primarily a drainage issue, and the city has invested $238 million in drainage and another $400 million in identified engineering projects.
After releasing its sea level rise strategy, the city has had three storm events: a 1,000-year rain event and two near-record storm surge events.
Tidal flooding in this city of 145,000 people is becoming a “nuisance,” said Wilbert. Right now, it occurs 50 days a year; it will occur more than 180 days a year by 2040.
Land use, or building where it makes sense to build, is a major piece of the puzzle for climate resilience. “We can’t make any more mistakes,” said Wilbert.
Regulations are another piece; going beyond the minimum and engaging engineers and scientists on stormwater and floodplain regulations. He also championed the national flood insurance program to help create adaptation measures in anticipation of big storms.
A third piece is addressing the skills gap. The city added four people this year to focus on flooding issues. Wilbert said bringing in people with the right skills is critical, including those who can communicate to federal officials about climate change issues.
A fourth piece is outreach. Wilbert called himself an “action” type, but said he learned that it’s not enough to act; communicating is just as important, telling people what you plan to do and then going out and doing it, instead of answering a barrage of questions later.
And then there is the infrastructure piece. “That’s the hard part,” he said, because infrastructure is expensive. Charleston has a billion-dollar problem, for example, and that’s more money than a small city can handle.
Climate resilience is a “shared responsibility,” Wilbert said. It takes government, businesses, neighborhoods and individuals working together to deal with the changes ahead.
US Coast Guard Makes Progress on Funding Icebreaker Fleet
The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) has released a request for proposal (RFP) with matching funding to acquire a new heavy icebreaker vessel intended to be the first of a six-ship installment and the beginning of a robust U.S. icebreaker fleet. Announcing the proposal at the Mar. 1, 2018 State of the Coast Guard address, Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft said it is the first step in protecting the “fourth coast” of the U.S.—the Arctic.
The USCG is “a service that punches above its weight class, it’s time we were budgeted accordingly,” Zukunft said. “This is our highest priority. We have no self-rescue capability whatsoever for our only icebreaker.”
He cited the “mounting Russian footprint” in the Arctic and called for the need for “another tool besides submarines” to maintain U.S. security in the High North latitudes: “The only thing we have in our inventory to operate up there in an ice environment would be these icebreakers.”
The U.S.’s only heavy icebreaker currently in service, Polar Star, is now heading home from Antarctica after supporting a U.S. National Science Foundation mission by breaking a path in the ice to allow research ships to reach the continent, an annual Antarctic trip known as Operation Deep Freeze. While working in the Ross Sea, the icebreaker suffered flooding in its engine room after a shaft seal failure and one of the cutter’s three main gas turbines failed. The crew was able to make repairs and complete the mission with no injuries, cutting the remainder of the ice path without the use of its third turbine.
An Aging Fleet
Polar Star was commissioned in 1976 and recently underwent a three-year retrofit to return to the water in 2013. Its sister ship, Polar Sea, was decommissioned in 2011 and has since been used for parts for Polar Star. The USCG website says it is evaluating options for reactivating Polar Sea. The USCG has one medium icebreaker in service, USCGC Healy, which was commissioned in 2000 and operates mainly in the Arctic. While Healy has performed various ice-breaking assists for the Navy and can cut through ice up to 8-ft. thick, the thicker ice of the Antarctic presents a challenge.
The USCG has a fleet of more than 30 ships and some of them are 73 years old, Zukunft said: “The 2019 budget gets us out of the starting blocks to build that fleet.” He said he is optimistic the acquisition packet for the new icebreaker will come in under $1 billion.
Under the Trump administration’s recently released budget proposal for 2019, USCG would get $750 million to award a contract for detail design and construction of new polar icebreakers. The U.S. icebreaker fleet will be developed on an accelerated timeline, and the contract award will certainly consider the time factor: the first icebreaker needs to be in the water by 2023, the latest date Polar Star is expected to remain active.
While the fleet is scheduled to initially include three medium and three heavy icebreakers, those may only be a first installment in a fleet that grows in size in the future. To develop the icebreaker’s specifications, $25 million has already been awarded to vendors to do ice study modeling.
The U.S. icebreaker will have military-grade weapons capabilities and cutting-edge technologies for unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles. The USCG also needs to expand its satellite bandwidth to cover the Arctic latitudes, Zukunft said, because beyond 78˚ N, most of the satellites used by USCG are on the horizon, making communication difficult. The new icebreaker is also intended to be modular so that new technologies can be added later.
“We need to think creatively in terms of the future of autonomous vehicles. There might be autonomous ships in the life cycle of this ship.” he said. “We need to be thinking outside of the box. The ships we acquire today will be in service 30 to 40 years from now, and it’s going to be a completely different world from when we acquired them.”
A Trending Coast Guard Brand
In his State of the Coast Guard speech, Zukunft also commented that while the USCG brand is “trending way up” after heroism in assisting Hurricane Harvey victims, it also faces an identity crisis as plenty of stakeholders, citizens and government leaders are still unaware that USCG is a branch of the U.S. military that is involved in assisting Navy and other U.S. government missions, enforcing illegal fishing bans and intercepting transnational criminal organizations.
In the five nights prior to his State of the Coast Guard address, Zukunft said a dozen USCG ships operating in the Eastern Pacific confiscated a total of 10 million tons of cocaine in less than one week. But still, he said, “We don’t have enough [resources]. The U.S. cannot do this alone.”
Around Apr. 1, the USCG will launch its first combined counter-drug operation in cooperation with the navies of Mexico and Colombia. It will also deliver two patrol boats to Costa Rica this spring to help combat Honduras-bound illegal drug shipments that have rerouted as Honduras has gained intelligence.
In 2019, the USCG will deploy two national security cutters to the Asia-Pacific region where it conducts an annual combined operation to enforce illegal fishing regulations in the far western Pacific Ocean. Whether the USCG will assist with enforcing any sanctions related to North Korea is a policy issue that remains to be decided, Zukunft said.
“I want to work closely with some of these coast guards,” he said, to “de-escalate some of the tensions and use coast guards as a diplomatic tool rather than a weapon.”
Zukunft completes his four-year term as USCG commandant this year.
“Four years ago I would have said [the icebreaker] is a bridge too far, now it’s a reality,” he said.
The U.S. Navy Tests Saab’s ASW Training System
For a three-month period in 2018, the Bahamas will play host to a demonstration of a new anti-submarine training device. According to Saab, anti-submarine warfare may be more necessary than ever in 2018.
The testing venue is known as the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center. The anti-submarine warfare (ASW) device being tested is called the AUV62-AT, and it has already taken part in Unmanned Warrior—a U.K. showcase of the latest defense technologies from the private sector.
What Is the AUV62-AT and What Does It Do?
AUV62-AT isn’t exactly a vehicle itself, but rather a platform that provides a realistic target against which to demonstrate offensive and defensive capabilities. It is to war games what CPR dummies are to paramedics in training.
A key difference is that this dummy was designed by Saab, in part, to mimic the design and functionality of Swedish Mk. 62 torpedoes. These hallmarks give the AUV62-AT the ability to pose as both passive and active targets for training participants.
The platform is fully equipped to train users in how to detect and deal with enemy submarines. According to Saab’s defense sales manager, the AUV62 can transmit signals consistent with the profile of Russia’s Akula-class submarines.
As an active target, if training participants detect the AUV62 using sonar, it will send back a ping that accurately models an encounter with hostile submersibles.
Just as important as accuracy, however, is acquiring meaningful data and assembling actionable feedback about training encounters for participants. To that end, operators of the AUV62 platform can review post-exercise data that includes details on how participants behaved as they searched for the ASW trainer and whether and what types of operational errors were made.
Why Anti-Submarine Warfare and Why Now?
If the U.S. Navy’s evaluation period goes well, Saab hopes the AUV62-AT will become the official training paradigm for the USWTR, or Navy Undersea Warfare Training Range. The range is located in Jacksonville, Florida, and provides a host of immersive and advanced training modules so participants can acquire realistic experience with submerged targets and operating combat and defense systems. The facility is set to open in 2019.
This is good timing, too, according to Saab representatives, because the use of submarines throughout the world appears to be on the rise. For all their menace, the idea of submarines lurking off beyond coasts might sound unlikely. Nevertheless, training for this threat is emerging as a top priority for defense-minded U.S. government officials aware of India’s recent acquisition of submarine-hunting planes and the possibility of a more aggressive China protecting its maritime interests in the Malacca Strait, Indian Ocean and beyond. Reports even indicate India could build a wall of sensors in the Indian Ocean to further bolster preparedness.
As military technology goes, the AUV62 and the training facilities it may soon occupy look like steps in a productive direction: higher technologies applied to detection and nullification rather than pure force.
China’s Arctic Ambitions: Q&A with Sherri Goodman
The Arctic has traditionally been a region where cooperation has been common between nations. Its significance on the world’s geopolitical map is changing, however, as global warming leads to increased ice melt, thus reducing barriers to maritime navigation. Less ice means more shipping traffic and better access to resources, most notably, oil and gas.
China, despite not having any territory in the Arctic, recognizes the value of the polar region and has staked a claim with the release this January of its national Arctic policy. ST spoke with former deputy undersecretary of defense (environmental security) Sherri Goodman, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center, about China’s Arctic, and global, ambitions.
Sea Technology: Why is the Arctic important to China?
Sherri Goodman: I think China realizes that its economic future will absolutely involve Arctic resources, transit and influence. Once the Northern Sea Route, or eventually the Polar Route, becomes viable for destination shipping, it will cut days off other transit routes, and the Arctic is now projected to be substantially ice free in certain parts for four months of the year within the next 15 years or so.
So, the Chinese are looking at the future of the Arctic. Climate change has opened up a vast new region of the planet for shipping, energy resources. They have active energy projects with the Russians, [for example] at Yamal. They’ve also been making plays into Greenland and Iceland for energy and minerals.
They’ve got a very strategic approach to science. They’ve really ramped up their scientific research in the last five to twenty years, deploying their researchers and scientists to Svalbard in Norway, to Iceland and Greenland. There’s also vast fishing resources that are moving northward that will be plentiful. They see the opportunity and the promise, and they connected it into their whole Belt and Road Initiative.
ST: Can you place China’s Arctic policy in the context of Belt and Road?
SG: China’s Arctic policy—they’re building the spider web here. They’re building the web. It [China’s Belt and Road Initiative] already has blue economic passages in it, the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean to the South Pacific. They added the Arctic as one of the blue economic passages within the Belt and Road Initiative. Some call it a maritime Marshall Plan.
They just joined with Finland to develop subsea cables, to develop the Data Silk Road. There’s a lot of communications still to be laid and developed in this region.
And then they’re using their science as an investment with deliberate purpose. Investing more than all other non-Arctic states in observations, ocean research, climate change.
They’re also looking at how they participate in setting global norms by acknowledging that climate is changing, and this is why they need to be part of that region’s sustainable economic and social development policies. That’s how they couch their Arctic policy—through sustainable social and economic development. They’re developing their bid for Arctic leadership.
ST: Is it realistic for China to claim itself as an Arctic nation when it’s not geographically in the Arctic?
SG: They’ve stressed in this policy that the Arctic is a global commons. They stress that the Arctic is like the ocean and like space, that it’s a global commons area. It’s very different than how they approach the South China Sea and their claims in the South China Sea. I’m not sure they can fully be reconciled other than that it’s in their interest to have access to Arctic resources; it’s not in their national interest to allow others to dispute [China’s ownership of islands in the South China Sea].
ST: The U.S. does not have much technology in the Arctic. It barely has icebreakers, even though the Coast Guard has been pushing for new ones. What do you think of U.S. technology in the Arctic?
SG: For many years, the U.S. and, to some extent, Russia were the predominant players in Arctic science, research and technology. That’s shifted tremendously in the last five to ten years, and I think China is pursuing its science with a strategic purpose now in a way that I get concerned that the U.S. may underestimate.
We [the U.S.] don’t have a centralized approach or a coordinated approach to pursuing our science and research, and our industries are not clearly connected.
Now, China is able to bring a vast amount of resources to play from government and the private sector. They’re looking at peering into a region that is changing very rapidly and has somewhat of a leadership vacuum.
The U.S. has always been a somewhat reluctant Arctic nation. Many Americans don’t even think of the U.S. as an Arctic nation. As this region becomes more navigable and more exploitable and changes dramatically, we have to be aware and have a strategy for managing those changes.
Let’s not forgot that Russia has the longest coastline of any Arctic nation, and really sees the Northern Sea Route that runs along the Russian Arctic coast as an important toll road and resources for the future. Russia is a resource economy. Twenty-plus percent of its GDP comes from the Arctic, and it has long had significant populations in the Arctic.
Then, you could compare with some of our Nordic allies, Norway, Sweden, Finland, all of whom have undertaken pretty substantial innovation initiatives, whether through telecommunications, education or sustainable development.
ST: How do you think the U.S. sees the Arctic?
SG: In the last five or so years, most of our key agencies have developed Arctic strategies. There has been an Arctic policy going back to the 1980s, the first George Bush. It’s been refreshed and updated. When the U.S. chaired the Arctic Council 2015 to ’17, the U.S. put a lot more leadership initiative to it. It aligned with the last administration’s goals on climate change, a way to highlight that the climate is changing more rapidly in the Arctic than anywhere else in the planet. They held the first Arctic science summit.
Now there’s a lot of interagency and other networks established in the last administration that have withered and are dormant. And it wasn’t an accident that in the Chinese premier’s last visit to the U.S. he also went to Alaska. What we’ve seen in this era, in the Arctic and in general, is the rise of subnational- and [sub]state-level diplomacy. Now you have the Chinese premier having his own engagement strategy with Alaska!
ST: What are your predictions for what will happen in the Arctic in the next five to ten years—cooperation or conflict?
SG: Right now, there is good cooperation among the Arctic nations through the Arctic Council, and through other fora. And it’s most likely that that cooperation will continue because right now it’s in all of the Arctic and non-Arctic nations’ interest to continue to advance their science, communications, access and a variety of mechanisms by working together. I think the tensions or issues can arise if, for example, there’s always an accident waiting to happen, an oil spill or a ship that runs into trouble, and whether that’s addressed in a cooperative way, we won’t know until the incident occurs and what it presents. But that’s one area to watch out for, continue to plan for. That’s what the [Arctic] Coast Guard Forum is doing. If a transboundary incident occurs, it will involve leadership at high levels.
There’s also a question of conflict in the Baltics, Russia, Ukraine spilling into this region. The Russians are building up their military. The Chinese are building up their capabilities and military capacity.
I’m concerned the U.S. has been slow to develop its surface ability to operate and its infrastructure capability, partly because it doesn’t see itself as an Arctic nation and partly because it’s vastly expensive—but we do so at our peril because we could be surprised.
─Interview by Aileen Torres-Bennett