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ROMEO Lands a Leading Role in Antarctica

By Michael Dorsey

Foraminifera, unusually large one-celled marine animals, are among the earth's most abundant organisms. They're of interest to scientists for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the strong glue they make to build their shells, a substance that may one day be used in biomedical applications such as sutureless surgery. The Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica is one of the few places where these creatures can be found close to the surface, but collecting samples in the frigid waters there is difficult, and can only be done during the brief Antarctic summer.

That's where Jeff Blair '04 enters the picture. A Major Project by this manufacturing engineering major will give scientists who study foraminifera or who need to observe other interesting phenomena in hard-to-reach places a powerful new window on the world. That window is called ROMEO, or Remotely Operable Micro-Environmental Observatory. Blair designed and built the high-tech underwater camera for Samuel Bowser, a biologist at the State University of New York at Albany who has studied foraminifera in Antarctica for several years. Last winter, Blair took his prototype to the "ice" to try it out.

ROMEO is a clear, waterproof enclosure containing a video camera equipped with a powerful zoom lens that can be operated remotely. On-board lights enable observations even in the sunless Antarctic winter. Images from the camera travel through fiber-optic lines to a base station, where they can then be transmitted by radio and the Internet to scientists thousands of miles away.

A three-year partnership between Blair, a San Francisco native, and Tony Hansen, an expert in scientific instrumentation in the Bay area, led to ROMEO. The two met when Blair sought help with a high school robotics project. Impressed with Blair's confidence and technical know-how, Hansen asked him to complete a contract he had to build an optical transmissometer for measuring atmospheric soot. Blair built the first device on his mother's kitchen table and has since sold units to university and government scientists.

Hansen often builds instruments for scientists working in Antarctica, which is where he met Bowser and learned about his dream of observing foraminifera year-round. Hansen proposed the idea of a remote underwater observatory, then asked Blair, who by then had transferred to WPI from the University of California, Davis, if he'd like to design it.

"Tony called me and said he was going to Antarctica and had a project I might be interested in," Blair says. "He said, 'Do you want to go?' It didn't take me long to say yes."




At the suggestion of Gretar Tryggvason, head of WPI's Mechanical Engineering Department, Blair turned the design challenge into his Major Project, with Tryggvason as his advisor. "I was going to take time off from school to go to Antarctica until I realized I could get academic credit for the experience," Blair says. "I don't think I could have done that anywhere else." ROMEO would ultimately win Blair the 2004 Provost's MQP Award for the best Major Project completed in mechanical engineering.

In early November 2003, after many late nights in the lab, Blair boarded a C-141 Starlifter in Christchurch, New Zealand, for the six-hour flight to McMurdo Station. After two and a half weeks of testing, during which a minor leak was detected and fixed, Blair, Hansen, and Bowser traveled by helicopter to New Harbor, where the permanent camera will ultimately be located. There, divers installed ROMEO on the floor of the harbor for a successful weeklong trial.

Next summer, the team plans to leave the camera submerged for six months; if all goes well, the following year it will begin year-round duty, giving Bowser a chance to make unprecedented observations of foraminifera behavior. Before that can happen, the National Science Foundation will have to install a conduit for power and data lines through the permanent sea ice, something that has never been tried before.

Now that ROMEO is proving its value as a scientific tool, Blair is thinking about how to market the technology--and the concept of "telescience" (doing science remotely)--to other scientists. He's already captured the interest of a group of penguin researchers he visited in Antarctica. "I haven't seen any other underwater cameras with the capabilities of ROMEO," he says. "I think it can play a role in a lot of different kinds of science."

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