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How a big underground tank in Bedford could help boost state’s ‘bluetech’ economy

MITRE is set to open a massive underwater vehicle testing facility — 20 miles from the sea

Nonprofit defense contractor MITRE is set to open a massive underwater testing facility in Bedford — 20 miles from the sea. The giant tank was just filled up in early October in a building designed by architectural firm Margulies Perruzzi.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The state’s marine science sector reached an important milestone this month — not in a coastal city but in an unassuming bunker-like building tucked in a suburban office park in Bedford, more than 20 miles from the sea.

Not-for-profit defense contractor MITRE Corp. finished filling up what is essentially a high-tech swimming pool, though it’s much deeper than what you’ll find at your local YMCA. This tank, dubbed the BlueTech Lab, is so big it took roughly two weeks for MITRE to fill it. MITRE even had to truck in water over five days to supplement the flow coming from the town.

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This new BlueTech Lab features one of the largest research tanks in the region: more than 100 feet long, 20 feet deep and 40 feet wide. That’s enough room to accommodate 620,000 gallons of water, or 30 times a typical backyard swimming pool. The tank will accommodate unmanned undersea and water-surface vehicles, for MITRE and its research partners to test systems for communications and acoustic sensing. MITRE also plans to connect the sensors at the Lab to its “BlueNERVE” network that it is building out this fall with other marine science facilities, enabling participants to share data and test results in real time.

An entourage led by Governor Maura Healey visited MITRE in June, to announce a $2.2 million state grant to help get this network going. MITRE also hopes to host a “BlueTech Academy” with the MassRobotics trade group each summer to familiarize high school students with underwater robotics technology.

For officials such as Patrick Larkin, deputy director of the quasi-public Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, the work at MITRE should help unify the disparate players in the state’s marine sciences industry, which employs several thousand people primarily working in communities along the state’s coastline.

A worker inside MITRE's testing tank (before it was filled with water) on the defense contractor's Bedford campus.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“The marine economy, [aka] the bluetech economy, is at an inflection point, and we’re pleased to be a part of it,” said Larkin, whose agency shepherded the state grant for MITRE. “What MITRE is offering to do is to connect this ecosystem in a way that doesn’t exist today. ... We think it’s a change event for bluetech in Massachusetts.”

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Both MITRE’s BlueTech Lab and the BlueNERVE network came about almost by accident. Nick Rotker, MITRE’s chief bluetech strategist, said he and his team had gone to California to deploy some buoys with sensors in the water in 2017. They had to do some makeshift soldering on the dock to fix something that went wrong. That got Rotker thinking about a way that this technology could be tested back in Bedford.

Originally, he wanted to build an above-ground swimming pool, when someone said, “What about the ice chest?” — a reference to an underground tank on MITRE’s campus that was used to store ice as part of a now-obsolete building cooling system. The massive unused ice chest, it turned out, would be a perfect place to test scientific buoys, underwater autonomous vehicles and remotely operated vehicles.

“As we talked to folks within the region, there was a real lack of capacity for testing platforms,” Rotker said.

So MITRE decided to open up the lab for others to use. This decision coincided with the development of MITRE’s BlueNERVE network, an outgrowth of an earlier communications system that MITRE built to help intelligence agencies collaborate in real time. “We took that concept and rebranded it for the maritime space,” Rotker said.

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The initial BlueNERVE partners will include, among others, UMass, Northeastern University, the Mass. Maritime Academy, Tufts University, MassChallenge, and the University of Rhode Island.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was among the first to sign on. WHOI deputy director Rick Murray said it was a no-brainer. The Falmouth institute has test tanks, too, but they’re much smaller than the one in Bedford. And WHOI’s involvement in BlueNERVE will go well beyond tapping into the new tank.

“This is really helping marry the two institutions, taking their strengths and our strengths,” Murray said. “It’s really going to be fostering collaboration.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him @jonchesto.