The internet of things has shipped out to sea. A number of remote sensing technologies have been employed to monitor various aspects of the ocean to improve weather forecasts, safer resource exploration, and climate change mitigation with benefits to companies, policymakers, and the planet.

What’s changing?

Tagging and tracking animals even in the sea has been done for years, but the number and type of maritime monitoring devices are increasing and expanding with some connecting to the internet. University of Georgia researchers are using LiDAR (light detection and ranging) with satellite imagery to create remarkably accurate maps of coastlines, and the data is made available online for tourists, developers, policymakers, etc. University of Hawaii at Manoa scientists are using GPS on commercial ships to improve tsunami warnings and weather forecasts. Heriot-Watt University researchers are enabling robots to repair coral reefs using swarm technology.

The most concerted efforts to digitally connect the vast seas has been made by Liquid Robotics and their Wave Gliders. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) uses them to study tropical storms and improve hurricane predictions, and BP has used them in monitoring offshore oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon spill. Since 2008, the Wave Gliders have been available commercially, but Liquid Robotics usually sells its data services which are sometimes offered to the general public as with their PacX Challenge. For this challenge, the company sent four Wave Gliders across the Pacific from the coast of California on the longest voyage for an ocean robot, and two of them crossed the Equator this past summer. All the data from the four drones are readily available online for any type of analysis, and the company is offering a prize to the researchers who produce the best research proposal from this data.

Why is this important?

The ocean covers 70% of our world, but only 10% of the ocean has actually been explored. The ocean also regulates our climate while providing about 70% of our oxygen and feeding billions of people. Between ocean acidification, dying corals reefs, dwindling fish stocks, and rising sea levels, the ocean is also the best place to find hallmarks of climate change with evidence for an impending increase in extreme weather and decrease in biodiversity. Not only is the ocean systemically important environmentally; but also geopolitically as militaries mobilize in the South China Sea and the Arctic; and economically for investors in fishing, offshore drilling, energy generation, etc.

An internet of the sea will deepen our understanding of the complex system of the Earth while opening opportunities for investors, policymakers, and those utilizing big data. The data drawn from these sources will help developers along the coast as well as on offshore projects like aquaculture or even floating islands, and it will help leaders make better informed decisions for the sea which is increasingly busy with those vying to exploit its resources. Researchers could monitor for red tides, hurricanes, and coral health while law enforcement officers monitor for piracy, illegal fishing and dumping. It will also save costs for insurance companies and emergency response with early warning signals of storms, spills, etc, and at some point, a combination of sea drones and crowdsourced volunteers might even clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

By Dennis Draeger

About the author:

Dennis Draeger, a Senior Research Associate with Shaping Tomorrow, is a global citizen currently based in New Zealand. After finishing his master’s in Futures Studies at University of Houston, his foresight consulting portfolio has grown to include work with SMEs, government agencies, and global corporations while partnering with Shaping Tomorrow, Research for Tomorrow Today and Next Corporation. He now heads up Aiglatson Foresight Research.