northeastern university seal

Mark Patterson

Associate Dean and Professor

Mailing Address:

115 RI (Richards Hall), Boston, MA 02115


  • biomechanics, Marine robotics, physiological ecology



I direct the Field Robotic Laboratory. We design and build free-swimming robots and surface vehicles. I have always loved marine ecology and biomechanics, because they are so interdisciplinary. Inspired by Ken Sebens and Steven Vogel, 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 decade, 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. I am convinced that AUVs are oceanography’s most important recent technological advance. The FRL has used 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. Current initiatives of the ASL include 1) developing 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) biologically-inspired autonomy whereby behaviors and structures by evolved organisms as diverse as salps, squids, sponges, fishes, marine mammals, and marine reptiles can increase the robust intelligence of AUVs, 3) new software for coordinating AUV swarms (CARNIVORE), and 4) developing methods to thwart the misuse of unmanned systems by terrorists.

The physical biology of invertebrates (sponges, cnidarians, squid), plants (macroalgae, sunflowers, seagrasses), and fishes is another area in which I am broadly interested. The allometry of metabolism is an area where I apply chemical engineering theory to lower aquatic invertebrates and algae. Contrary to the predictions of “universal scaling laws” that have appeared in the literature, e.g., the West, Brown, Enquist (WBE) theory, 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 I have developed a predictive theory based on first principles from fluid transport and mass transfer. This “flow modulated allometry” model is now being tested in my laboratory and in the field using the NOAA underwater habitat Aquarius. Since 1984, I have used saturation underwater habitats to conduct research in situ on corals and their allies. Recent work using Aquarius has 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.

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

Mark Patterson in the news


This Sensor Won’t Save the Whale with 88 Pounds of Plastic in its Stomach. But it Might Help the Rest of Us.

Ethan Edson, a research technician at the Field Robotics Laboratory at Northeastern's Marine Science Center, has been working on an autonomous sensor to study microplastics, pieces of plastic in the ocean smaller than 5 millimeters.