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Blue tech: Sussex County’s fast-growing innovation sector

Remember those robot boats? Blue tech is making a big impact in Sussex County, thanks to new programming at UD's Lewes Campus.

One of University of Delaware's Ocean Infinity ASVs, aka robot boat. (Courtesy photo)

When you think of tech and rural-coastal Sussex County, you might think of agtech, or agricultural technology, which quitely thrives on many of Delaware’s commercial and family-owned farms.

There is, however, another growing tech industry that is putting SusCo on the innovation map: blue tech, or ocean technology — specifically, ocean robotics.

You might remember that, in January 2021, an unmanned tugboat sank in the Delaware Bay and was quickly located using two of the University of Delaware’s autonomous surface vessels (ASVs), also known as “robot boats.” It was the first “real world” mission for UD’s ASVs. UD’s fleet of four ASVs may sound small, but it’s one of the largest — of not the largest — ASV fleet at a university. The boats, each of which cost about $2.5 million, were received through a partnership with Austin-based marine robotics company Ocean Infinity in 2018. It’s an example of blue tech.

This area of innovation is now expanding at UD’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment in Lewes. It include the Ratcliffe Eco-Entrepreneurship Fellows (REEF) program, which brings Horn Entrepreneruship to UD’s coastal campus to develop entrepreneurs who seek to create businesses, commercialize discoveries and develop new products that will solve environmental problems or improve sustainability.

The REEF program came together after Rob Nicholson, innovation program lead for the Delaware Department of Technology and Information, met Dr. David Lawson, then an adjunct assistant professor with Horn Entrepreneurship, at an agtech event in 2019.

“It started as the general idea around leaning into the strengths of the Lewes campus and getting it to partner more intimately with the College of Engineering and the Horn Program,” Nicholson told “That way, we’ve got a scientific piece for basic research, more applied research with the College of Engineering, and then you’ve got Horn, which is obviously bringing forth an entrepreneurial mindset, training and helping to guide some of those inventions and ideas forward.”

Lawson, who is currently the director of REEF, landed the funding, and it recently wrapped up its second cohort.

With REEF underway, Nicholson is focused on another proposed UD project called the Blue Ecomony Technology Center, an expansion of the existing robotics discovery lab on the Lewes campus that would include programming for K-12 students.

Blue tech’s impact on the Delaware economy will be highlighted by Tech Forum’s upcoming event at the Lewes campus, “Underwater Robotics, Beer and Networking” on Oct. 20, which will include a tour of UD’s Robotics Discovery Lab, followed by a chat over beers at Crooked Hammock Brewery in Lewes.

Greg Plum, chair of the Tech Forum, notes that it is the Forum’s first ever event in Sussex County.

“We are always looking to provide a spotlight on innovations in Delaware and the surrounding region,” he said. “With the recent focus on blue technology, we’re excited to host our first event in Sussex County with the help of Rob and his colleagues.”

Companies: University of Delaware

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