northeastern university seal
Mark Patterson

Mark Patterson

Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Affairs Professor Chief Technology Officer, Global Resilience Institute Core Faculty Member, Coastal Sustainability Institute Affiliated Faculty Member, Institute for Experiential Robotics


  • coral ecophysiology, global change biology, Marine robotics, metabolic allometry

About Mark Patterson

I direct the Field Robotics Laboratory (FRL). We design and build free-swimming marine robots, and new kinds of sensors and systems for ecophysiology. I have always loved marine ecology and biomechanics, because they are so interdisciplinary. Inspired by Ken Sebens and the late Steven Vogel and Tom McMahon, I like asking questions that require new technology to find the answer. Serious students of the history of science know that this is usually how science advances: new instruments lead to new insights that often spawn whole disciplines, rather than vice versa.

For the last two decades, our lab has been developing Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), free-swimming robots that survey the bottom and water column in ways superior to previous approaches like towed bodies or lowering an instrument over the side of a ship. We use AUVs to make new discoveries such as coherent structures of lowered oxygen over coral reefs, how krill swarms in the Antarctic appear on high frequency side scan sonar, and how to identify fishes from their side scan sonar images using neural network processing. This last area is poised to become a new tool for fisheries stock surveys and one of our vehicles is in use for this purpose by NOAA. Our team is convinced that AUVs are oceanography’s most important recent technological advance.

Our lab holds patents in the area of marine robotics (US 5,995,882) and using machine learning to interpret underwater imagery (US 7,221,621). The original Fetch AUV currently holds the record for the longest continuously operating underwater vehicle. Currently, we are working on 1) designing a deep-sea autonomous vehicle swarm that can persist on-station for months, and return thousands of miles back to shore with physical samples, using a radical new approach to AUV design, 2) exploring how biologically-inspired autonomy (from organisms as diverse as salps, squids, sponges, fishes, and marine mammals and reptiles) can increase the robust intelligence and extended deployment performance of AUVs, 3) integrating new sensors for the detection of microplastics into AUVs in collaboration with Ocean Diagnostics, a blue-tech startup in Canada, and 4) developing methods to thwart the misuse of unmanned underwater systems by terrorists in ports and harbors.

The physical biology of invertebrates (sponges, cnidarians, squid), plants (macroalgae, sunflowers, seagrasses), and fishes is another area that our lab investigates. The allometry of metabolism is an area where we apply chemical engineering theory to aquatic invertebrates and algae. Contrary to the predictions of “universal scaling laws” that have appeared in the literature, these taxa do not follow 3/4 power scaling of metabolic rate with body mass. Instead they exhibit a diversity of scaling exponents for which we have developed a predictive theory based on first principles from fluid transport and mass transfer, as well as the effect of living in groups.

This “flow modulated allometry” model is has been extensively tested in our laboratory, and in the field using saturation diving underwater laboratories. Since 1984, we have used saturation underwater habitats to conduct research in situ on corals and their allies. Using these unique inner space stations, that provide the gift of time to conduct elaborate experiments, we have examined how reef corals respond to water motion during bleaching episodes by altering their photobiology and expression of stress proteins. Our lab has recently developed a predictive electrical network model of the gastrovascular system of corals of the two types of coral bauplan, perforate (where an extensive plumbing connects the polyps) and imperforate (where polyps are not connected directly). This model will help us understand how corals respond to environmental stress including that posed by global warming and ocean acidification. We have also used network science to investigate the resilience and robustness of the coral-symbiont associations on a local, regional, and global scale as a means to understand vulnerability of these paradoxically fragile yet robust ecosystems.

Prof. Patterson is a joint appointment between the College of Science and the College of Engineering.


Mailing Address:

115 RI (Richards Hall), Boston, MA 02115
Institutes, Labs & Research Centers
Coastal Sustainability Institute at the Marine Science Center
Marine and Environmental Sciences

The MSC’s research topics relate to understanding how the projected impacts of climate change will affect marine habitants, and how urban communities along the coast can best prepare for these impacts.

Patterson Lab
Marine and Environmental Sciences

The Patterson lab works to develop autonomous underwater robots for civil infrastructure and marine sensing and decision support tools for gray/green infrastructure like tide gates while studying environmental fluid mechanics,biomechanics, and mass transfer in living systems.


Your Tomorrow Starts Here.Learn More Today.