When the term Information Highway was coined, little did the majority of the world realize the impact this concept and the resulting Internet Superhighway would have on humanity. In 1994, MIT described the concept this way: The information superhighway brings together millions of individuals who could exchange information with one another.”  Spring forward to today. You can simply “Google” anything and receive an instantaneous response to gain immediate knowledge.  This is our expectation—immediate access to data anywhere in the world, day or night.

In reality, instant access to data is only true for less than one quarter of our planet. For the remaining three quarters, the ocean, there is a huge information infrastructure gap, with limited to no real time access to data.

Why is this? On land, we have sensors everywhere—weather sensors to provide neighborhood weather reports, traffic sensors to report on road conditions, and the list goes on. There are sensors throughout your home for better home management and security—controlled right from your smartphone. In manufacturing plants, sensors are prevalent to optimize the supply chain and increase productivity. Many more examples exist in healthcare, entertainment, military, oil & gas, and in thousands of other industries. The Digital Revolution has certainly arrived, yet not to our oceans.

Why does this matter? Who needs instant access to information in the middle of the ocean? The answer is we all do. The world’s economies are tightly linked to the oceans. Over 90 percent of global trade is carried by ships with goods worth over $4 trillion. Fishery net export revenues are over $42B, and offshore energy exploration exceeds $394B. To help solve the global issues of dwindling fisheries/seafood supplies, energy shortages, and climate change we must depend on advancements in technologies, and the ability to understand the ocean, which will require an exponential growth and deployment of sensors and a global communications infrastructure to help monitor and manage the ocean.  These economic forces, coupled to the sustainable management of our ocean environment, are key drivers of the Blue Economy. The common denominator for this growth is the need for pervasive real time data to understand what’s going on in our ocean and in turn, our planet

Despite a growing awareness of our economic dependence on our Oceans, the majority of the world does not realize its importance or our dependence for life’s basic needs (oxygen, food, weather). Below are statistics that underscore this importance and co-dependence:

  • The U.S. GDP is heavily influenced by U.S. Maritime transportation with over 95 percent of U.S. foreign trade, nearly 3 million jobs (1 in 50), dependent on maritime commerce (Source: CIT Maritime Fast Facts in Five, 2016).
  • Four fifths of the world’s merchandise trade is seaborne.
  • 99 percent of all international data (calls, text messages, financial transactions) travel through undersea cables.
  • In Europe alone, the gross estimated incremental value of the Blue Economy is $500 Billion per year.
  • Fish provide more than 3.1 billion people with almost 20 percent of their intake of animal protein.

A maritime digital revolution

Today, our expectation is for instant communication—immediate response to any question. Just ask Google Home or Amazon Echo. We enjoy access to real time information across land, air and space; however, this is not true for our ocean.

This is the glaring gap. Seventy one percent of our planet is ocean. Of this 2/3 of our world, we only know five percent about what exists. Why? Unlike on land, air and space, there are relatively few sensors or devices to collect data below the surface and even fewer ways to communicate. The issue is the World lacks a data collection and communications infrastructure to provide real time communications throughout our ocean.

Without the ability to have pervasive information and information exchange, I submit we will not be able to tackle some of the most challenging issues before us. In 2015, more than 190 world leaders committed to 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to help us all end extreme poverty, fight inequality & injustice, and fix climate change. Of these, number 14 is to conserve and sustainably use the ocean. This is a fundamental requirement, and, if not addressed, will have severe consequences. Just think of the ramifications to the 2.6 billion people who today rely on seafood as their main source of protein?

A vision for a Digital Ocean is emerging.  It can be defined as a diverse, networked array of platforms and sensors that enable connectivity across the ocean, to the air above and through the vast ocean depths, providing instant access to ocean information. This vision will take time and collaboration across industry, government, NGOs and Academia. It requires unmanned and manned systems working together to collect exchange and communicate data.

We need to start today to overcome the challenge of networking the ocean. The benefits of such a network are invaluable. Imagine if there were grids of sensors spanning our ocean, connected and networked, that could provide instant information on impending tsunamis, or on water quality to detect oil leaks and possibly prevent a major catastrophe.  Think about the intelligence we would gain by using these sensors to conduct long term monitoring of the world’s fish population and how this could help feed those 2.6 billion people. The insights we’d gain from this data would transform business, advance scientific discovery and help safeguard our ocean.

Overcoming business and technology barriers.

Before the Digital Ocean becomes a reality there are obstacles we have to overcome:

  • Lack of a pervasive ocean data collection and communications infrastructure. Fundamentally, we need to create the information highway for the ocean. A connected network of systems, manned and unmanned, that can collect data anywhere in the ocean, anytime, and do so sustainably. Today this is not possible. Enabling on-demand, real time ocean information is the goal for the Digital Ocean.
  • Sparse number of sensors throughout the ocean. Ironically, there are more sensors in Space than our ocean. Why? The ocean is an extremely dangerous and costly place to operate, especially in the unpredictable deep ocean. The costs, both in dollars and risks to human life, severely limit ocean observation and monitoring. With sensors to collect real time data on climate change, weather, seismic activity, ocean currents, fish migration or other biological or environmental conditions, we can learn what’s really happening beneath the surface. We’ll have the data to measure and then better manage our ocean. This ability to easily and economically deploy data collection sensors throughout our ocean is fundamental to the future of the ocean economy and ocean preservation.
  • Renewable energy to fuel long duration systems. For ocean systems, energy is the first constraint that limits how independent, how autonomous, a robot can be. With vast coverage areas and no mid ocean gas stations or electric hook-ups, the need for systems that are not dependent on refueling and those operating on renewable energy sources is critical to long duration operations.
  • Extreme reliability for ocean operations. As noted, the ocean is unpredictable and harsh. In addition to extreme wave, wind, current, temperature changes and mid ocean hurricanes, salt-water corrosion is another unique challenge that must be overcome.  Every component and every aspect of the integrated system requires extreme reliability design and testing. It requires the same or greater testing that is done for space flights, as for both, repair calls are slow and costly.
  • Reducing the cost and risk of ocean operations. The current acquisition, maintenance and operational costs for ocean operations are prohibitive for most businesses. With the advent of unmanned systems, the risks and high costs associated with manned ocean operations (i.e. ships) are greatly reduced. We need to let the unmanned systems tackle the dull, dangerous and dirty jobs to safeguard human life and improve overall operational efficiency.

The ocean is data rich, yet without an easy, reliable, and cost effective communications infrastructure it remains untapped. The good news is we’re not starting from scratch. Commercially available technologies, both manned and unmanned, are available and working today, but more development is needed.  Creating the Digital Ocean will require an entire ecosystem of partners working together toward a common objective – connectivity anywhere on or in the planet’s oceans. 

Starting now, starting together

Whether it’s international trade, undersea communications, weather, food sources or jobs, our economic future depends on sustaining a healthy global ocean. To do so, we need to reliably collect and communicate information from all parts of the ocean. This requires a renewed dedication to network and communications innovation that fueled the World Wide Web. We can start by collaborating on the Digital Ocean.

The Digital Ocean is a long-term endeavor that is not in place today, yet has seeds around the world. It requires more than technology and building out the fundamental infrastructure. It will require thoughtful and collaborative work on international maritime law and regulations, interoperability and data standards, and security. The good news is that we have the experts today.  Our next step is to adopt a shared vision with clear goals and then get started.

The time to get started is now. Our oceans are ailing and need our attention. Without a healthy ocean we cannot realize a healthy ocean economy. This is why I ask you to start thinking now about the role your organization can play in the Digital Ocean. What can we collectively do to overcome the challenges?  Looking ahead the opportunities are vast and the stakes are high. Join me to create the Digital Ocean—the next global communications frontier that will serve the Ocean of 2030 and our future generations.