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November 22, 2021

IAA Executive Director Bellingham Joins Johns Hopkins as Bloomberg Distinguished Professor

Image of James Bellingham

James Bellingham, a pioneer in the worldwide autonomous marine robotics field who has led research expeditions from the Arctic to the Antarctic, was appointed as a Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Exploration Robotics. Bellingham is also the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Assured Autonomy and a senior advisor at Johns Hopkins APL.

Credit: Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University

James Bellingham, a pioneer in the worldwide autonomous marine robotics field who has led research expeditions from the Arctic to the Antarctic, was appointed as a Johns Hopkins University (JHU) Bloomberg Distinguished Professor (BDP) of Exploration Robotics.

Bellingham is the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Assured Autonomy (IAA) in Baltimore. He concurrently serves as a research professor in the JHU Whiting School’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and as a senior advisor in the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory’s (APL) Asymmetric Operations Sector, where he helps advance government and defense innovations for national security.

“Jim Bellingham is a pioneer in the autonomous marine robotics field, and we are so pleased to have him leading the university’s Institute for Assured Autonomy,” said APL Director Ralph Semmel. “He brings a unique understanding of the challenges and opportunities the world faces with autonomous systems, which are rapidly becoming a part of our daily lives.”

“Jim Bellingham not only works at the cutting edge of autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) research, but he is also committed to taking an interdisciplinary approach to research that considers the implications and ethics of the technology he is advancing,” said Sunil Kumar, JHU provost. “This commitment is what makes him a perfect addition to the cadre of interdisciplinary scholars that make up the Bloomberg Distinguished Professors. We welcome him as a BDP and as the director of the Institute for Assured Autonomy.”

Bellingham’s interdisciplinary collaborations have already yielded promising scientific discoveries. He teamed with marine microbiologists to develop new ways to study the communities of microbes found in every drop of ocean water. These organisms, which perform crucial functions such as producing oxygen and forming the foundation of the food web, do not respond well to the usual methods of study and die when isolated in a monoculture in a petri dish. As a consequence, they cannot be studied in a laboratory.

Bellingham worked with his colleagues to bring their lab instruments to the ocean to study these organisms in their natural environments. He developed AUVs with high endurance that, when equipped with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s Environmental Sample Processors, conducted molecular probes by filtering water samples and extracting DNA or RNA for analysis. The endurance and mobility of Bellingham’s AUVs have enabled sophisticated studies of the ocean as a living system, allowing scientists to follow the same community of microorganisms over time and observe how they evolve and respond to their environments.

This research, Bellingham said, is critical for understanding the impacts of climate change.

“Some of the central problems of climate change really revolve around our understanding of the ocean environment, including its microorganisms, and there are so many things that are still unexplored or unknown,” Bellingham said. “Most of the carbon dioxide that we’re generating and putting into the atmosphere will end up in the ocean. Understanding the oceanic uptake of carbon and how that’s going to change the ocean over time is key. These autonomous marine robots enable investigation of some of the greatest global climate problems. The growing applications for autonomous systems in the ocean environment make this a tremendously rich and rewarding area to work in. It has a lot of tough and important problems that have big impacts on society as a whole.”

At JHU, Bellingham said he is excited to collaborate with experts from across the university who work on autonomy in a range of capacities, including as a solution to pressing societal problems such as food deserts or mobility issues. Discussions with colleagues so far have been transformative in getting him to think about the larger picture of the impact of autonomous systems on our lives, he noted.

“I cannot think of a time when I’ve come out of a conversation with a colleague at Johns Hopkins without a list of six things to read, more people to meet, and oftentimes a complete mental shift in how I think about a problem,” Bellingham said. “You have people from such a wide range of fields of application that have all these different ways of looking at the autonomy challenge, and figuring out how to work together more effectively is an exciting part of what we need to do institutionally to really rise to the next level.”

Bellingham received his B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he founded the Autonomous Underwater Vehicles Laboratory. He has held leadership roles at Bluefin Robotics and Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and joined Johns Hopkins from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where he was founding director of the Consortium for Marine Robotics.

As a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor, Bellingham joins an interdisciplinary cohort of scholars working to address major world problems and teach the next generation. The BDP program is backed by a gift from Michael R. Bloomberg, a Johns Hopkins alumnus, founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies, World Health Organization Global Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases and Injuries, United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Climate Ambition and Solutions, and 108th mayor of New York City.

Media contacts:
Amanda Zrebiec, 240-592-2794, Amanda.Zrebiec@jhuapl.edu
John Courtmanche, 240-521-1314, John.Courtmanche@jhuapl.edu

The Applied Physics Laboratory, a not-for-profit division of The Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For more information, visit www.jhuapl.edu.