NATO Marine Research Center Reaches Out to Young Scientists

A competitor launches an autonomous underwater vehicle during CMRE's European Robotics League (ERL) competition (file image courtesy CMRE)

Published Feb 7, 2021 1:57 PM by Edward Lundquist

NATO knows it must help create and develop its own workforce for tomorrow.  That’s why the scientists, engineers and technicians at the NATO Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE) in La Spezia, Italy, are looking for the next generation to take their place, and they’re starting with high school and college students.

A part of NATO’s Science and Technology Organization, CMRE has a vibrant outreach effort to encourage young people to get involved with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects.

CMRE Director Dr. Catherine Warner is proud of the center’s engagement with schools in the local community. “This is close to my heart, because we want to encourage young people, and young women especially, to get into STEM. When we look at maintaining our technological edge, one of the things we need are qualified people, and that starts with getting people educated in STEM.”

CMRE’s relationship with high schools in and around La Spezia, as well as colleges and universities that come to the Centre to participate in international projects, has successfully attracted people who are obtaining STEM degrees and work in relevant fields to become involved with the Centre, including joining CMRE as research interns.

Warner cites a local internship program that has been particularly rewarding.  “In La Spezia, students who attend the technical high school do internships in their junior and senior year.  We’ve provided opportunities for some of them to come here to CMRE.  You wouldn’t believe how technically advanced they are.”

CMRE joined the Blue Template – Blue Tech Educational Partnership Project with the Ligurian District of Marine Technologies (https://www.dltm.it/) in 2018 to develop training activities aimed at fostering the exchange of innovation, experience and know-how between different types of organizations, including education, training and industry. Through this project, CMRE helped to expand the boundaries of the classroom by offering experiential learning opportunities to local technical high school students in La Spezia. In May 2018, eight students arrived at the Centre to tour the labs and facilities as well as attend lectures on mechatronics and underwater robotics applications, given by Dr. Gabriele Ferri. Through this internship, students engaged in collaborative learning and critical thinking in the field of maritime defence science and were able to see first-hand how a professional laboratory operates. The programme is expected to resume for the 2021-2022 academic year.

Another recent success story is the Giona Project, an initiative that involves several institutions in the area of La Spezia aimed at promoting awareness, understanding, and the safeguarding of the marine environment among students. “We’ve done research here at CMRE on the impact of acoustic energy on marine mammals, which is of interest to our nations, because we want to avoid harming marine mammals,” Warner explained. Through a cooperation agreement with three local high schools, tutored and assisted by CMRE scientists and engineers, students and their teachers have had the chance to embark on-board the NATO Coastal Research Vessel Leonardo to conduct a real bio-acoustic research project.

“We provided acoustics data to the students, and they went out on Leonardo to acquire additional data, and then conducted an analysis as a science project. Ultimately, the students were able to present their findings at a very large and prestigious conference here in La Spezia in May 2018 with the European Cetacean Society, and also during a final workshop with schools, local authorities and media in Lerici in June 2019,” said Dr. Diego Merani, CMRE’s Head of Scientific Communications and Information Systems and the project manager of the Giona Project.  “It was a huge success, and we hope to continue that relationship.” 

The 2020 trial was cancelled due to COVID 19, but Merani said the centre is working to allow the students processing data in the cloud, with CMRE scientists providing remote tutoring sessions.

Warner said the Giona Project exemplifies the longstanding close ties with the neighbouring community. “The woman who led this effort for the La Spezia School System, Dr. Pamela Nascetti, is a biologist who worked at CMRE.  In fact, her father worked here.”

Warner hopes to have more students come to CMRE and design and conduct their own experiments.

In addition to the Giona project, another major event at CMRE is the European Robotics League (ERL) Emergency robotic competition. Now part of the SciRoc EU project and sponsored by IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society (OES) and Blue Robotics, and with the help of the Italian Naval Support and Experimentation Centre (CSSN) next door to CMRE, the ERL Emergency competitions attract student robotics teams from around the world.

The team’s robots compete outdoors and underwater to carry out tasks in realistic emergency response scenarios. One task is for the robots to autonomously find a mannequin underwater that represents a casualty. Although ERL Emergency is a competition, it’s a friendly one that promotes collaboration and exchange of ideas between international teams of science and engineering students with a common interest in robotics. These young people will be building the robots of tomorrow, which will be doing more “dull, dirty and dangerous work” so that humans don’t have to.

The annual robotics events include talks on robotics topics, ranging from robotics disaster-response strategies in response to a nuclear accident, to ocean robotics for surveillance applications, and are given by visiting speakers from around the world.

The competitions help develop the next generation of robotics scientists; act as a benchmarking activity to compare the suitability and reliability of robotic systems; and create vital connections and collaborations between CMRE and the worldwide robotics community. The success of these events has raised awareness of CMRE as one of the world’s leading institutions in marine robotics research.

Some of the competition participants have returned as interns and visiting scholars, further strengthening CMRE’s outreach efforts.

The CMRE Visiting Researcher Programme (VRP) offers the best and brightest students, university researchers and scientists and engineers from NATO nation’s laboratories the opportunity to participate in research at the Centre.  Visiting Researchers have access to CMRE equipment, facilities, and data, and growing their research experience through collaboration with CMRE scientists and engineers at the Centre, located on the beautiful west coast of Italy.  Some stipends and expenses are covered, depending on education and experience.

The program provides opportunities for work experience in one of CMRE’s core competencies, which include underwater acoustics, sensors and signal processing, ocean observation and prediction, operations research of complex systems, remote sensing and adaptive sampling, communication engineering, ocean engineering, information theory, cognitive science, and autonomy and collective intelligence. Current research programmes based on these competencies include autonomous mine countermeasures, cooperative anti-submarine warfare, environmental knowledge and operational effectiveness, marine mammal risk mitigation and maritime security.

“We definitely have an amazing team, with incredible ideas and a great work ethic,” said Warner.  “We have around 50 engineers, and have always been able to attract the top-tier of scientists from the nations. Currently we have 47 NATO civilian scientists, as well as more than 20 visiting researchers who will come here for several months to work with us.  We recently had a couple of students from the French Naval Academy here working on deep learning and automatic target recognition. And that’s really the point of CMRE, to have people come here with their expertise, experience and knowledge, and go home with a better understanding of NATO’s challenges and opportunities.”

Despite the COVID 19 pandemic, the CMRE STEM education outreach programme has continued with “Introduction to Robotics,” an online lecture given by a CMRE scientist for a group of 20 local students who are participating in the robotics track of Giona Project. These students are building a remotely operated underwater vehicle to participate in an upcoming robotics competition this fall. 

Edward Lundquist is a retired U.S. Navy captain who writes on naval, maritime and defense issues.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.