The US needs open ocean data to avoid an innovation wipeout
The last decade has seen a surge of activity and interest involving the world’s oceans. Exciting examples include the recent discovery of explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship the HMS Endurance at a depth of 10,000 feet in the Weddell Sea, record-setting submersible diver Victor Vescovo’s mind-blowing descents into the world’s deepest ocean trenches, as well as an upsurge in ocean-based, post-pandemic tourism and recreation. Ocean related challenges have been in the headlines with images of congested seaports being the most visible symbol of the ongoing supply chain disruption, where shipping is but one component of the increasingly relevant ocean-based blue economy. Our oceans are also a place for the most prominent conflict and competition of the day, as the South China Sea and Strait of Taiwan are center stage for the U.S.-China rivalry, while the Black Sea plays a key strategic role in Russia’s brutal aggression toward Ukraine.
The ocean’s natural resources are also seeing a growing groundswell of support, with governments, philanthropies, industry and the public sector working together to tackle marine plastic pollution, combat coral disease, counter illegal fishing, restore coral reefs, as well as add new and expand existing marine protected areas (MPAs). An overarching international effort to coordinate efforts like these is the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science, for which the U.S. has a dedicated committee within the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics to coordinate our national contributions.
The common denominator in all of this ocean activity is data. Whether exploration, transportation, conservation or competition — all depend upon knowledge of the physical characteristics of the maritime domain. For that reason, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) led the development of the national strategy and plan to acquire ocean data through mapping, exploration, science, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems.
These developments have happened so swiftly that we are approaching a point of potential ocean data inundation. Powered by emerging remote and in-situ sensor technologies, satellite communication networks, edge computing and cloud-based data storage and delivery systems, we are collecting and disseminating unprecedented data densities. At the same time, advances in data-driven modeling such as machine learning have the potential to accelerate ocean understanding and predictive capabilities beyond anything seen to date. Realizing this potential requires a fundamental shift toward collaborative approaches to open up data pathways across government, academia, philanthropy and industry. Three essential actions that can help accomplish this are:
1. Expand autonomous, multi-platform collaboration and interoperability
The first step in dealing with the ocean data deluge is to further its occurrence. In other words, we should embrace the current proliferation of ocean data collection platforms. Given the scale and remoteness of much of the ocean environment and the data density and coverage required for meaningful impact, we must turn to more distributed, multi-platform networks consisting of advanced, autonomous sensing nodes that carry heterogeneous payloads. Interoperable, multi-domain and multi-vehicle, uncrewed ocean systems are emerging today, and they will only increase through advances in ocean internet-of-things (IoT) capabilities such as undersea and space-based communications.
2. Advance standardization of system components and connectivity
A critical obstacle to expand our use of ocean data is a lack of standardization. The distributed, multi-platform and multi-modal ocean network we call for is characterized by varied and challenging environments and requirements, diverse stakeholders and use cases, disparate subsystems, as well as numerous factors that introduce extreme sensitivity to hardware margin costs. In other fields, connectivity standards have been in use for decades. Consider the profound impact of the USB with the desktop PC, Bluetooth for mobile devices and CubeSat in space. No broadly adopted standard has emerged for ocean connectivity.
Instead, there are a wide range of connectors, protocols and electrical specifications for bespoke projects and platforms. Advances in standardization are still early stage but have the potential to be extremely disruptive. The Defense Advanced Research Program Agency’s (DARPA) Bristlemouth project, for example, aims to provide an open access, full-stack connectivity standard to support high-level plug-and-play modularity for marine applications, and it represents the role that public-private partnerships can play in removing barriers to scale.
3. Enhance data discoverability by increasing public-private partnerships.
Increasing public-private partnerships will help to build seamless pathways to access more data from multi-platform networks with distributed ownership. While gold standard, government repositories such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Center for Environmental Information have partnered with private companies to augment ocean datasets, much more can be done. In the last decade, we have seen the rise of frictionless data as a service (DAAS) models, commercial cloud-based data hubs, and application programming interface (API) technology that are making private sector ocean data increasingly accessible to a wider section of society.
Autonomy, artificial intelligence, edge computing and communication technologies have combined with a growing global awareness of the importance of the oceans to generate a surging tsunami of ocean data. To overcome this challenge, NOAA and the Consortium for Ocean Leadership are hosting the National Ocean Exploration Forum later this month. While we applaud this demonstration of leadership by America’s top ocean agency and nonprofit, the Biden administration should elevate this effort by making similar commitments to those stemming from the 2019 White House Summit on ocean science and technology partnerships. The potential benefits of this to the environment, economy and national security are tremendous. With public-private partnerships, we can create connected oceans for a more sustainable future, ride the big wave of ocean data — and avoid an innovation wipeout.
Rear Admiral (ret.) Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., is the former deputy administrator of NOAA, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, as well as an oceanographer of the Navy. He is the CEO of Ocean STL Consulting, LLC , host of the “American Blue Economy Podcast”, and is a member of the Ocean Studies Board within the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics.
Tim Janssen, Ph.D., is an oceanographer and the CEO and co-founder of Sofar Ocean