Gray’s Reef Foundation Fueling Ocean Literacy through Underwater Robotics Competition

The din of a Savannah coffee shop does little to quiet Jody Patterson on Friday afternoon. A soft-spoken woman, Patterson’s voice is charged with passion as she speaks about her work to promote ocean conservation in the Coastal Georgia area. But her mission is a little more simple than that. She works primarily to combat apathy. Or as she puts it…

“A lack of awareness, understanding, and caring as it relates to the natural world,” she says. ”We’re looking for ways to inspire connections.” 

Her desire to enhance our connection with nature led her to the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. She’s been with Gray’s Reef chapter for 12 years and has watched the organization grow over the years. The foundation now hosts an annual underwater robotics competition, bringing students closer to a greater understanding of ocean literacy and conservation efforts through education. 

“It challenges students to design and build a robot, thinking of themselves and the team as a small business,” Patterson says. “What is involved in the design process? What are they building it for? What is the mission? 

Classes of competition range from scouts, designing prefabricated, low-tech models, to the explorer class, which Patterson refers to as the “cream of the crop.” This section implements artificial intelligence and machine learning to enhance their operations.

“At this level, they’re advancing to the international level,” she says. “Our region sends a few teams every year to compete at that level.”

Patterson says that these competitors are the next generation building the blue-tech economy. 

“Blue-tech is exciting,” Patterson says with a smile. “When we talk about blue-tech, we think about submersible vehicles, but these can also be gliders, wave gliders, aerial drones, remote-operated vehicles.”

The opportunities the competition provides are limitless. Patterson and I share a laugh as we both agree that a competition like this could have encouraged a thirst for more STEM knowledge. It certainly would have helped me understand why I failed college physics. But Patterson doesn’t come from a STEM background. She is, at her core, an ocean conservationist. 

“That’s my passion,” she admits. “It’s protecting the natural world for everyone. I wanted to understand what the threats are to [Gray’s Reef] and how to best protect it.”

What is Gray’s Reef? 

Gray’s Reef is a live bottom habitat home to more than 200 species of fish. Often referred to as “Georgia’s national underwater park”, the area is a compacted sandstone that has formed over time to create a hardened substrate. The Reef is 20 miles offshore of the Georgia coast, and measures just over 22 square miles long. 

Much of Georgia’s seafloor is sand, which makes it hard for organisms to attach to. The ripping current doesn’t help either. As such, Gray’s Reef creates a bed of opportunities to support a diverse ecosystem. 

As such, the health of the reef plays an important role. There are five major river systems that drain into the Atlantic basin along the Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina coastline.

“They are receiving every toxic load that could possibly be sent that way,” she says. 

Economic Impact

The Reef’s survival has its own economic impact in the Savannah area as well. 

“Our economies are largely based on global transportation. We’re dependent on that,” she says. “This is the third-largest port on the eastern seaboard. Our fishery economy…without a healthy ocean, you don’t have a fishery economy.”

She continues, saying “I feel like that’s where industry, and government especially, can step in and say ‘look, we’re vested here. We want people to recognize Savannah as the place to come for these experiences, for these trainings, for these educational opportunities, and for a potential to innovate something new and be greater than what they might do otherwise’.” 

She acknowledges that not every student participating in the competition must go on to become the next groundbreaking marine roboticist. Instead, she hopes that those participating in the competition will begin to understand their underwater impact a little better. 

“While these students may not necessarily want to move into marine robotics, they have a comprehensive understanding of what our ocean resources are, the threats to those resources, and how they will impact throughout their lifetime,” Patterson says. 

Find out more about Jody’s work with Gray’s Reef chapter of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation here