Exploring Worlds beyond the coastline – OCEANS 2020 plenary

Hari VishnuAutonomous Underwater Vehicles, Earth Observation, Ocean Decade, Oceans

Image of a Saildrone

How will technology be used to power our exploration of the oceans in the coming years ?

5 February, 2021

by Hari Vishnu

A plenary talk on ‘Exploring worlds beyond the coastline’ was delivered at the Global OCEANS 2020 conference by Dr. Jyotika Virmani, the Executive Director of the Schmidt Ocean Institute (SOI) and previously the Executive Director of Planet & Environment at XPRIZE. She was also Executive Director of the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE.

In her talk, Dr. Virmani described how technology will be key to powering our exploration of the Oceans in the coming years, and how Schmidt Ocean Institute (SOI), with its philanthropic model, has contributed to powering this science in the past by allowing scientists to use the facilities on board their ship R/V Falkor and the ROV Subastian.

Dr. Virmani gave a generic overview of how technology has allowed humans to survive even in the toughest places on Earth. We have been able to use our ingenuity to survive in even the most difficult of conditions historically. Now, our world has become more connected due to technology, and this allows us to go to places we couldn’t before. 

"We are living in an era where technological innovation is happening at an exponential scale."

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Jyotika Virmani (right) with the session chair Dr. Venugopalan (left) during the plenary.

Dr. Jyotika Virmani (right) with the session chair Dr. Venugopalan (left) during the plenary.

To describe the exponential growth in human technology, she gave the example of the development of data storage over the years. We have progressed from a 5 MB storage costing $120,000 in 1956, to a 128 MB storage costing $99 in 2005, to 128 GB storage costing $40 in 2020, clearly reflecting the pace of technological growth.

These are amazing times, where there is a lot of exciting new technology developed in fields including sensors, artificial intelligence, robotics, synthetic biology, virtual reality and 3D printing, which opens up further opportunities for humans to explore our planet.

Dr. Virmani briefly described the activities of SOI, which was established by Eric and Wendy Schmidt, and how their research vessel Falkor has been used to power ocean exploration over the years. Falkor has many laboratories and high-tech equipment on board, allowing it to push the boundaries of ocean exploratory research. SOI was set up to understand the world’s oceans through technological advancement, intelligent observation and open sharing of information. SOI’s model was disruptive when it was established, and its resources were made available freely to scientists to test their technology. In return, scientists are asked to make their data and results publicly available.

She mentioned that the year 2020 has been a challenging year for marine operations globally, and Falkor was one of the few ships that could successfully operate scientific missions during this pandemic. It has communication facilities on board that allowed exploratory trials to be done over summer though scientists were not present onboard - some scientists tuned in remotely to Falkor. In April, the team on Falkor and its ROV SuBastian was involved in a discovery of a 150-foot long siphonophore which is believed to be the longest animal in the Ocean, off the coast of Western Australia. 

The fact that a creature of this length was observed only a few months ago, shows how unknown, unexplored and weird the Ocean still is today.

The SOI is also involved in the Decade of Ocean Sciences and has signed an MOU to commit to the Seabed 2030 mission. SOI has contributed over a million sq km to the GEBCO database (read more on seafloor mapping by SOI in Australian waters). The overall goal of Seabed 2030 is to create a map of the entire seafloor to high resolution, just as we have on land.


Image of a Saildrone

A Saildrone

Dr. Virmani described some of the latest and upcoming developments in robotics technology that has boosted Ocean exploration, apart from the ROV Subastian (also see related panel talk  on ocean robotics technology at OCEANS 2020). These include the Seakit and Saildrone, which was used to do early recon in the area of interest for exploration before Falkor goes to the location. The Saildrone was developed with some early grant funding from SOI, whereas the Seakit won in the Ocean Discovery Xprize. SOI is now looking at the ability to recover a robot in sea using another robot operated by humans, which will allow us to conduct work in the ocean in a whole new way. And the technologies to explore the ocean wont stop at submersibles or swarms (read more on autonomous ocean-going robots). They will have to stretch out through the water column, sea surface and beyond, gathering data in a 3D way.


SOI also uses the hyperspectral infrared and thermal cameras on board the Falkor to learn more about the sea surface micro-layer. The sea surface layer is notoriously hard to study. However, using this technology allowed SOI to study details of this layer like never done before, such as the cyanobacteria which regularly occur in the ocean around Fiji. This allows us to understand the global heat budget and carbon cycling better. SOI has also tested EDNA technology to understand the biology of the oceans better.

Another example of a robotics tool being used is “Squishy fingers” - is a soft robot for biologically inspired sampling (For more information on this, there is a National Geographic Article online, and a scientific article). This tool will allow for gentle interaction for studying these creatures of the deep. They were 3D printed onboard Falkor by Daniel Vogt, Research Engineer at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. This soft robot device was used to pick up samples for scientists. Many deep-sea specimen remain undescribed because they can't be brought to surface. So these robotic fingers will allow scientists to study some of these bizarre and delicate creatures of the sea. Another sampling tool being developed at Wyss Institute is a Rotary Actuated Dodecahedron to bring back fragile creatures. <can insert video>

We (humans) are so unconnected with the deep ocean, that we are unable to see the amount of rubbish we generate that reaches the seafloor in even the deepest regions, which we are able to observe now through our cruises (see also: Earthzine themed articles on Plastic rubbish). Now efforts are ongoing to reduce or stop this waste from being dumped into the ocean and reaching even these remote places.

The Falkor has had numerous cruises directed at technology development, and these have used an assortment of technologies such as robotic platforms to explore hydrates, investigate eddies, etc. The exploration is not just with respect to hardware and robotics - for example, Falkor had an expedition in 2017 to ground truth satellite data with particles in the ocean. This could include dust, phytoplankton, fecal pellets, fish, and even logs or marine debris. Studying how these pieces of matter are spread out and grouped according to their size can provide insight to marine biodiversity, ecosystem health, and aspects of biogeochemical cycling, including the oceanic carbon cycle. 

Virtual/augmented reality (VR/AR) is another way to talk about and communicate the beauty of the Ocean. SOI was instrumental in helping develop the first 3D model of a hydrothermal vent field for VR. This will allow other audiences to feel and see the deep sea like we have never before. Hopefully machine learning will also come into play in the future to clarify the image and model further. Scientists are also using VR to view sea plankton through augmented reality.

What about the future ?

Dr. Virmani next spoke about technological advances outside the marine industry that we should tap into to spur this golden age of exploration.

The first is communication technology. Low-orbiting satellites will provide us cheap low latency coverage. This will revolutionize our ability to communicate from high seas to land. So in addition to control rooms on vessels, this may now enable us to have control rooms on the coast - in labs, in universities, maybe even schools. This is really an exciting way forward.

Another area leaping forward is material science. Via leaps in this field, there are promising new power sources that can help ocean exploration - such as ultra-thin flexible organic solar panel that can reside on a air bubble, developed at MIT. A coating of this could help many different technologies transition to long-lasting lightweight systems, and replace bulky batteries on drones/USVs. This could shift how we gather information in the Ocean.

The Avatar Xprize works on an integrated haptic suit wearable by a human, which will allow us to see, feel, smell and touch objects in a remote location. This can also allow an operator to interact with a remote environment. This technology can have several applications in the future - allow people to do search and rescue in disaster environment for example. A lot of application of telemedicine technology happened this year, and moving forward, maybe these Avatars will also allow the doctors to conduct tests in a more interactive manner. People from 19 countries are actively involved in developing this technology. Hopefully by 2022 we'll have prototypes of this tech on land, and then this will be extended to the Ocean.

Here’s a possible picture of the future you can imagine: with a haptic suit on, you may be able to watch the fish swim by in the ocean, catch creatures in their natural habitat, and go to a number of depths, just as easily as sitting at a park bench watching the birds.

As technology evolves, our ability to explore is bright. Virmani mentioned John F. Kennedy's famous quote: “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics whose horizons are limited by obvious realities. We need people who can dream of things that never were“.

The Schmidt Ocean Institute’s RV Falkor on task at Herald Cays in the afternoon light – perfect conditions in the middle of the Coral Sea!

The Schmidt Ocean Institute’s RV Falkor on task at Herald Cays in the afternoon light – perfect conditions in the middle of the Coral Sea!

Q & A session

The talk was followed by a very lively discussion session which saw a lot of questions and interactions from the audience. 

Q (Venu): Your talk today covers what SOI offers researchers worldwide in exploring the sea, and you also showed us some video footage from Subastian. How can we in ocean research make public outreach as effective as, say, the space science community ?
Jyotika: For one, we can look at what is the difference in communication between the space and ocean science industry. When you look at how space science is shown in pop culture, you see portrayal of cutting-edge stuff that has never been seen before, and that inspires engineers to develop these. However, ocean-based pop culture is often about romanticizing the past. The future-looking technology is not embedded in pop culture related to ocean technology.
Also, the space industry is almost always positive and forward-looking. However, a lot of coverage on Oceans have been on the negative aspect - instead of focusing on finding life, we're (looking at the fact that we are) killing life. Maybe we can make a change there? So there are many avenues in which we can start to make a shift. I hope by the end of this decade we (ocean science community) will have as much a highlight as the space.

Q: You are going to use multiple assets and technologies for seabed mapping. There will be results coming from these different vessels and instrumentations. How do you ensure these are properly calibrated, in terms of ground truthing, before integrating them into one place ?
Jyotika: This is indeed a tough task, but all of this is under the umbrella of GEBCO, and seabed 2030 is part of that. They have data centers set up to ingest and look at the bathymetric map data that is coming in from all sources.

Q: You seem pretty confident that this can be achieved by 2030 ?
Jyotika: I say this can be achieved by 2030 because the technology has been developed quickly, making it promising, and things are looking good. When we launched the Xprize, only 5-6% of the seafloor had been mapped to high resolution. In the last 4 years, we have already got to 20%, which is amazing. This was achieved by looking at data that was already collected, as well as by collecting new data. So yes, I do have some confidence in this.

Q: When will SOI have the capability to deploy an ROV from an autonomous surface vehicle (ASV), and not only a ship ?
Jyotika: That would become an interesting piece of tech if it were possible. Some autonomous surface vessels have been developed that can deploy and recover underwater devices. But (deploying/recovering) a ROV is more complicated because it has more instrumentation, and you also want to be able to transmit the footage it collects.
However, there is work underway to develop uncrewed or lightly-crewed surface vessels with ROV deployment capability. For example, Ocean Infinity is developing this. I think in about 2-3 more years we should be able to see that kind of capability. Sea-kit wasn’t even in existence 3-4 years ago, but now they're being built as well, so I think we’re heading there slowly. We may start off with lightly-crewed before fully uncrewed assets, until we can improve our underwater communication capabilities, which is one of the hurdles.

Q (Hari): Does SOI’s model require collaborating scientists to make their data also public, apart from their research results ? Do you recommend specific data-sharing portals or standards for this ?
Jyotika: Yes, we require scientists to share the data. We provide support in doing it, as and when needed. The issue of data is very complicated, it's almost always an afterthought, that's how it has evolved historically.
A few things complicate it. One is that we are looking at the ocean which has many dimensions - physical, chemical, bioiological, etc. So, different types of data is required to make sense of the whole.
The other complication is that data storage has evolved as an afterthought in the last few decades, it has not been in an organized manner of data platform sharing. I hope we're moving to a place where we have data portals that can aggregate, and I hope that the power of machine learning and artificial intelligence can kick in. We are looking at so much data and many types of data, it will need that additional assistance from machines to recognize patterns we cannot otherwise see.
There is also a new portal developed by another institution, called the Ocean data portal. This uses some sophisticated techniques to ingest different types of data.

Q (Venu): You spoke about Ocean plastics. Can you elaborate different technologies/techniques SOI is developing to detect Ocean plastics, and possible technology to recover them?
Jyotika: Broadly speaking, there are now many of these technologies in prototype stages - like technologies that can detect microplastics using fluorescent dyes which will stick to the plastic, which you can use to measure and count the amount of plastic. There's also technology for geotagging of macroplastic (which you can see) on the sea surface. There is also capability that has been developed to train satellites to see these macroplastics.
There are efforts on technologies to clean up the plastic too. There is the Ocean cleanup program, which pitches itself as the largest cleanup in history and aims to clean up 90% of the plastic in Oceans. The Ocean Cleanup is developing a passive cleanup method, which uses the natural oceanic forces to rapidly and cost-effectively clean up the plastic already in the oceans. With a full fleet of cleanup systems in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it aims to clean up 50% of its plastic every five years. There is also the Sea-bin project in Australia for cleaning up the Oceans.
There are also efforts out there on creating new materials, and on technology to recycle plastic, or to break it down into their constituent parts.

Q: Has SOI been encouraging EDNA amongst their sampling in cruises ?
Jyotika: Yes. This is an amazing piece of technology in the biological oceanographic world. We do hope to test different types of biological sampling capabilities in the Ocean, and some of our cruises have used that tech.

Q: I see that in SOI, the involvement is mostly from US-based scientists and researchers. Is there a plan for SOI to engage scientists/researchers from other parts of the world ?
Jyotika: Yes. This is why I'm here (at OCEANS 2020). We've been around for around 10 years, and we have been based in the US, since we inherently started there. But of late, we've been looking at inclusivity numbers as part of our performance indicators. We do want to engage more internationally. Especially in cases such as when Falkor is in a particular country's waters, we want to engage more with that. For example, there was a concerted effort this year to engage with Australia - when we were in Australian waters, we had tech from Australian scientists. That's the model we want to adopt as much as possible going forward.

Image credits:

Saildrone image "I want one" by Doug Letterman is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Image of Falkor: From Schmidt Ocean Institute Press release