Until the Challenger expedition of 1872–1876, little was known about the ocean. Travelling nearly 70,000 nautical miles (130,000 km; 81,000 mi) during its four-year mission, the converted Royal Navy gunship catalogued over 4,000 previously unknown species, building the foundations for modern ocean science.
Today, with human activity impacting ocean health, polluting the water, disrupting climate patterns and destroying ecosystems, the need for oceanographic data and the ships that collect them has never been greater.
But with the cost and limitations of crewed research vessels, where the safety and well-being of humans is the primary concern, it’s clear that new approaches are required to understand and conserve one of the world’s most important resources.
Fortunately, the growing maturity of autonomous technologies offers a solution.
The lungs of the planet
According to a special report from the UN intergovernmental panel on climate change, our ocean is warmer, more polluted, more depleted and more unpredictable than ever before. Every year, an estimated 8 million metric tonnes of plastic finds its way into the ocean, infiltrating food chains and threatening marine life. And by absorbing excess carbon dioxide (CO2) created by human activity, the ocean is growing ever more acidic, impacting some species’ biological development and destroying important habitats like coral reefs.
There are serious consequences for life on land too. While the global importance of the Amazon rainforest is undoubted, the ocean, and the oxygen-emitting phytoplankton that live in it, can make a greater case for being called the “lungs of the planet” producing about half of the air we breathe.
The ocean is also a highly significant source of food, with over 3 billion people depending on it for their main source of protein. And a look at the economic impact, from food and transport to trade and recreation, reveals the market value of marine and coastal industries is enormous – approximately $3 trillion a year, or 5% of global GDP.
A decade of ocean science
Recognizing the importance of the ocean and the threats it faces, the United Nations has proclaimed the 2020s to be the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. Bringing together a range of scientific disciplines, the initiative will provide a framework for better understanding and managing marine environments.
With a pledge to drive the “science we need for the ocean we want”, a key priority of the UN framework is to improve the quality and accessibility of data, including via the development of a comprehensive ocean monitoring system.
At present, ocean science is a somewhat fractured endeavour, with a lack of coordination across regions and ocean basins. It is also incredibly demanding – crews 100-strong can spend up to a month at sea, but only conduct a single day’s worth of science due to the remoteness of the destination or adverse conditions. Factor in the general hostility of the marine environment and a lack of connectivity, and it is hardly surprising that many people feel ocean science is not a discipline for them.
In recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this situation still further. With governments and oceanographic institutes grounding planes and recalling research vessels, manned research projects and the availability of data have been severely disrupted.
These challenges are some of the factors that have informed the Decade of Ocean Science strategy. Calling for new collaborative partnerships, the UN believes the private sector has a big part to play, particularly when it comes to developing autonomous technologies that can continue to gather and share data, even when researchers are unable to go to sea.
Introducing the Mayflower autonomous ship
Answering the UN’s call, IBM is supporting marine research organization ProMare to provide the technologies for the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS). Named after another famous ship from history but very much future focussed, the new Mayflower uses AI and energy from the sun to independently traverse the ocean, gathering vital data to expand our understanding of the factors influencing its health.
This new ship represents not just the future of marine exploration, but a sea-change in our overall approach to oceanographic research. Using a new ‘AI Captain’, built by ProMare’s engineers by fusing together IBM’s AI, automation and edge technologies, MAS can identify and avoid hazards as it self-navigates at sea. IBM and ProMare researchers are also pioneering new AI-powered approaches for the collection and in-situ analysis of samples and ocean data to better understand everything from water quality to what whale song can tell us about marine mammal populations.
MAS promises to advance ocean science in a number of ways. Most importantly, it fulfils several Decade of Ocean Science priorities, pioneering a cost-effective, flexible platform able to exponentially increase the volume and consistency of data gathered and made available to researchers.
In the future, networks of autonomous research boats, drones and submersibles could spend as long as six months at sea, generating data every day, looking beyond seasonal variability to better identify and respond to long-term trends. They will work in tandem with human oceanographers, but allow them to spend more time on data interpretation and action rather than data collection.
Beyond the research itself, MAS will help fulfil another important objective too – engaging the public. Ultimately, it will be impossible to clean up our environment unless everyone plays their part. The story of the ship and the fusing of past, present and future in its mission, as well as the ability to watch live video and data feeds online on the ship’s mission portal, means the MAS will help to increase public awareness of issues related to ocean health.
Too big to fail?
Ocean science has seen huge progress since the Challenger Expedition of 150 years ago. But there are still significant gaps. Today only about 20-30% of the ocean floor is mapped, and even then at a very low 100 metre resolution. To coin a term from the business world, our ocean is not too big to fail. The ocean has an incredible ability to regenerate itself, but unless we improve our understanding of ocean health, there is a risk that we will set off a chain of degradation that will be almost impossible to recover from.
Despite the damage, it is not too late to save our seas. Building on the mantra of the UN’s Decade of Ocean Science initiative, for the first time in history, we have at our disposal a set of technologies that can completely transform our ability to ‘gather the data we need, for the ocean we want’. What is required is collaboration and investment from across public and private sectors, public engagement and some of the same pioneering spirit that inspired the famous voyages of the Mayflower and HMS Challenger.
Rosie Lickorish, Software Engineer, Emerging Technology, IBM Research. This article was originally published in the World Economic Forum.