By: Don Cuddy, South Coast Today

Sometimes a chat over the fence is all it takes to set great things in motion.

Fairhaven, Massachusetts resident Karl Edminster was talking with his neighbor, marine researcher Emily Keiley, when she mentioned that the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth School for Marine Science & Technology (SMAST) had an underwater cable that had suffered damage on a fisheries survey cruise. She knew Karl’s job had something to do with electrical work. He said he’d take a look.

In fact, Karl is president of Electromechanica, a high-tech design-and build engineering outfit based in Mattapoisett. They spliced the cable.

“But we told them we do more than fix cables,” Karl told me. In fact, the perfectly anonymous space the company occupies in the Mattapoisett industrial park produces an array of highly sophisticated devices for an impressive list of clients.

The damaged cable belonged to an underwater camera system that SMAST researchers were using to assess the health of the sea scallop biomass.

“It had older low-resolution analog cameras and a digital still camera that they lowered and triggered remotely,” Karl said. This meant that scientists could not see the images until the cameras were retrieved.

Electromechanica proposed building SMAST a more effective system incorporating a fiber optic link. “That way they could capture all the data in high resolution in real time,” he said.

It was an offer too good to pass up, so electromechanical engineer Adam Robert’s career entered uncharted waters as he accompanied the SMAST team on research trips to install and test the improved design on the sea floor. It has been working well, he reports.

SMAST CableElectromechanica, Inc. teamed with the researchers of the Marine Fisheries Field Research Group to develop the Underwater Vision Acquisition System (UVAS). All data and video is fed up to the ship via a 10Gb fiber optic link to provide real time data.

“They needed a flat image to measure scallops and the ethernet cameras we use are pretty good at that,” he said.

The system transmits video from a large camera while collecting images and data from a DSC (digital still camera) and the resolution has improved exponentially. With the Electromechanica software, each time the camera pyramid is lowered to the sea bed, the GPS coordinates, water depth and temperature are automatically recorded and stored to a data base, eliminating the need for manual entry into logbooks and the possibility of human error.

“It’s so cool that was can take this hundreds of years old industry and apply the leading edge of technology to it,” Karl said.

Exposure to the region’s fishing industry and associated marine research has opened up new avenues for the company, Karl said. Electromechanica is now working with groundfishermen, designing and building cameras that can be attached to their trawl gear so they can see what and how much is actually going into the net, in real time, while they are towing. This technology is still in the developmental stage but the goal is commercial application.

“Fishermen are burning a lot of diesel when they are towing and they need to know if they are making money,” Karl said. Currently fishermen have sensors on the trawl doors and net that let them know the gear is towing correctly. “But with a live feed they could monitor the catch from the wheelhouse. If they ran into a bunch of cod or some other species for which the quotas are low, they could haul back and eliminate or reduce unwanted bycatch,” he said.

Some fishermen are attaching GoPro cameras on their nets, but these are analog. Electromechanica is working to manufacture a fiber-optic system.

“I can’t say enough about the professionalism of the fishermen that we’ve worked with and how eager they are to embrace new technology,” Karl said. “I was a bit concerned about that at first but they have been fantastic.”

Electromechanica was launched in 2001 from a chicken barn in Freetown after Karl left his job at Sippican (now Lockheed Martin). “It was self-financed and my partner, Steve Piché, and I just invested forward and grew it from there,” he said. They moved to Mattapoisett in 2010 and now have 10,000 square feet of shop space.

“People would never believe what goes on in this little corner of Mattapoisett. We are a major supplier to the transit industry and build a lot of test equipment for MBTA and New York Metro,” Karl said. “We do work for IBM and Amazon. We developed a robot for the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington that inspects pipes on warships for corrosion. Essentially we produce test equipment that allows the tech to find the problem faster.”

Electromechanica has a full in-house CNC (computer numeric control) shop so the company can design and manufacture its own parts. This was invaluable in producing a camera system tough enough to withstand the harsh underwater conditions on Georges Bank, in addition to surviving frequent poundings against the steel hull of a fishing vessel as the gear was lowered over the side in a seaway.

Whatever comes down the pike, or across the fence next door, Electromechanica seems ready to accept the challenge.

“It’s a lot of fun, a lot of innovation, a lot of challenges,” Karl said. “It’s not all rosy but we get to work with a lot of great people like Kevin Stokesbury and his crew at SMAST and with things constantly evolving we look forward to working with them again.”