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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, May. 31, 2011 6 years ago

Downtown small business develops high-tech ways to save the whales

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by Max Marbut

Staff Writer

In the 1990 film, “The Hunt for Red October,” the plot is centered on a rogue Russian submarine captain who decides to defect to America and bring his multibillion-dollar, top secret submarine with him.

Much of the action takes place aboard an American submarine where a sonar technician is desperately trying to locate the Russian vessel. In order to do that, the sonarman must sort out the sounds made by the Soviet sub from sounds made by whales.

“We used to do that, but now we do the exact opposite,” said Gary Donoher, president of Analysis, Design & Diagnostics Inc. It’s a high-tech research and development company with its headquarters on West Forsyth Street.

The company works with the U.S. Navy to develop software that can identify, record and log the sounds made by whales and other marine mammals. The ability to do that allows the Navy to comply with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. That’s important when training exercises are under way, since the sonar used by U.S. military vessels can be harmful to marine life.

“Every time the Navy turns on active sonar, they have to log the location and strength of signal,” said Donoher.

He’s a U.S. Navy veteran, as is the company’s COO, Michael Jackson.

Working with marine biologists at Duke University and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Donoher and Jackson were able to catalog the distinctive sounds, called “vocalizations,” that are individualized to species of marine mammals.

Being able to do so and apply the ability allows the Navy to know when marine mammals are in the area of a training exercise and avoid causing any harm to endangered or protected species.

“We had always ignored the sounds of marine mammals, but then we looked at thousands of recordings to develop statistical features and rules. Now, our classifier can identify individual species,” said Donoher recalling his time in the Navy.

Jackson said AD&D isn’t limited in scope.

“Research institutions do a fine job working with limited species in a relatively controlled environment. We address all species in a very noisy sonar environment,” said Jackson.

The Navy is required by law to record surface sightings and sonar-based whale contacts, so AD&D took its identification technology a step further and developed software that works on commercially available hand-held computers. The combination can replace the complicated, time-consuming pen-and-paper logging system, automate the process and allow personnel to devote more time to their primary missions while meeting the endangered species reporting requirements, said Donoher.

Jackson said by the end of a recent test session aboard a ship, the AD&D units had quickly become popular.

“They didn’t want to give them back,” he said.

AD&D also has developed a retrievable monitoring and recording device that gathers data that can be used to determine what species and abundance of marine mammals or other sources of underwater sound are nearby.

Donoher said in 2008, one of the units was placed on the sea floor six miles off the coast of North Florida. It recorded data 24/7 for four months. After the device was retrieved, the data was downloaded and used to help evaluate the migration patterns of North Atlantic right whales on their way to their calving area.

AD&D is now working on adapting its software to function on other portable platforms, including the iPad, and it is exploring ways to use its automated acoustic processes to identify other sounds.

One possibility is a system similar to the whale classifier that would identify and track land animals.

“We think it can be adapted for pretty much anything that vocalizes,” said Jackson.

With fewer than five people on staff and a product that virtually guarantees no walk-in retail traffic, why is AD&D located in the urban core rather than in a suburban office park?

“I have always been a proponent of Downtown. And, I live in Avondale, so I can ride my bike to work,” said Donoher.

[email protected]

356-2466

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