October 19, 2020
News Release

Who Will Get the Prize for Better Hurricane Monitoring?

Ocean Observing Prize seeks new concepts for powering sensors using wave energy

Autonomous Underwater Vehicle

Autonomous underwater vehicles, like this, need power to operate longer. The Ocean Observing Prize is seeking novel ideas that harvest wave energy to enable longer-lasting ocean observing platforms like AUVs and buoys. 

Image: ©2020 Andrey Suslov | Shutterstock

SEQUIM, Wash.—With hurricane season in full tilt, innovators are being encouraged to develop the next-generation of ocean monitoring systems that can obtain valuable oceanographic data—particularly those that inform us about hurricane formation. 

The Ocean Observing Prize is a competitive incentive program to help inventors advance new concepts for marine energy technologies that can power ocean observing systems. It’s part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Powering the Blue Economy™ Initiative. The prize is jointly sponsored by DOE’s Water Power Technologies Office and NOAA. 

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) are managing and administering the multi-phased prize competition on behalf of DOE and NOAA. PNNL is a multiprogram laboratory that includes DOE’s only marine and coastal research laboratory.

Phase two of the Ocean Observing Prize, known as the DEVELOP Competition, starts today, with a focus on integrating wave energy into ocean observing platforms that host instruments and sensors, such as autonomous underwater vehicles, buoys, or floats. NOAA is a potential end-user of technologies that may emerge from this competition and was a critical partner in scoping design requirements.

“We heard from many researchers who study and forecast hurricanes that there are certain types of measurements that can’t be taken simply because of power constraints,” said Rob Cavagnaro, a mechanical engineer at PNNL’s Marine and Coastal Research Laboratory in Sequim, Washington, formerly known as the Marine Sciences Laboratory.

“For instance, platforms may not be able to measure the speed of water in the ocean at the same time they are measuring temperature and salinity over long deployments,” said Cavagnaro. “But with more power available, researchers can add more measurements of these phenomena and better inform forecasts in the long run.”

The weight of sensor payloads rapidly drains batteries on ocean observing platforms. But with the ability to re-charge or energize at sea, platforms and instruments can deploy for longer periods of time and potentially travel farther out in the ocean to monitor hurricanes, sending real-time data back to research scientists or threatened coastal communities.

Inviting a storm of innovation

“In the business world, you often hear ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure,’ but for ocean measurement, it’s much more easily said than done,” said David Hume, a marine energy manager at PNNL. Hume, who used to work at a startup that built and operated wave-powered ocean robots, helped lead the scoping and management of the Prize.

“The Ocean Observing Prize aims to incentivize creation of novel systems that leverage ocean energy to reduce power constraints, helping scientists and researchers collect valuable data that feed the forecasting models so important for protecting both people and the environment.”

For the purpose of the prize, novel energy systems must rely on waves—anything that can create energy based on wave motion in water.  

“Beyond that, there is no right answer,” said Molly Grear, an ocean engineer and marine biologist at PNNL who is helping to lead the prize competition. “There are few rules about how a wave energy device is supposed to look or operate. We are hoping for and excited about seeing new, different, and outside-the-box ideas.”

Design winners receive prize money and support

Up to $2.4 million will be awarded during the DEVELOP Competition to help mature promising technologies. Competitors will have approximately 120 days to submit their designs during the Design Contest—the first of three contests in the DEVELOP Competition. The Ocean Observing Prize not only provides cash awards, but also access to state-of-the-art testing facilities, specialized trainings, subject matter experts, and potential partnership connections.

The competition is open to nearly anyone, ranging from those in established marine energy firms to “garage engineers.” Winners of the Design Contest will be challenged to develop their ideas into functioning prototypes and test them in tanks and the open ocean during subsequent contests, Develop and Splash.

Scoring and judging of the competitors will be done by subject matter experts from PNNL, NREL, NOAA, DOE, and elsewhere. The judges will focus on several factors, including integration of the wave energy device with the sensors and maneuverability of the platforms. PNNL is developing a standardized payload that all contestants will be able to use to simulate power draws and measure wave energy production.

Alicia Amerson, who manages marine renewable energy environmental monitoring and technology projects at PNNL and has family members in Florida who are on the lookout for hurricanes this time of year, notes that the wave energy concept must be rugged as well. 

“Once you build a technology that can stand up to meet the worst conditions you can think of—a hurricane—then it will work just about anywhere,” said Amerson. “The devices that we hope will emerge from DEVELOP will enable observation of ocean conditions along coral reefs, around marine renewable energy installations that produce electricity for the grid, or along coastlines, to name just a few.”

Future Ocean Observing Prize competitions are expected to focus on other energy challenges in ocean monitoring that will improve our ability to collect the data needed to understand, map, monitor, benefit from, and take care of the oceans.

Learn more about the Ocean Observing Prize.


Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on signature capabilities in chemistry, Earth sciences, and data analytics to advance scientific discovery and create solutions to the nation's toughest challenges in energy resiliency and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. DOE's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.