Crowdsourcing the Ocean Floor: How Mariners Can Gather Valuable Information for Better Decision-Making

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Guest Blogger

This is a guest post from Paul Cooper, Vice President of CARIS USA and John Hersey, ARGUS Project Manager for SURVICE Engineering:

How is one sailboat captain helping improve maritime safety for all cargo ships and commercial fishermen?

By providing data to develop more detailed up-to-date, even up-to-the-minute, nautical charts.

As our demands for the use of the ocean increase, including for marine transportation, you might be surprised to learn that the most basic information for any mariner — bathymetry (or information about water depth and the sea floor) — is incomplete and outdated in many areas.

If a large metal object fell from a truck onto a road, we would notice it immediately. Yet if this occurred in a waterway, it might not be apparent until the object was struck by a ship, as happened in 2004 when a submerged anchor, not indicated on any charts, punctured the hull of the tanker Athos I and caused an oil spill in the Delaware River.

Marine transportation contributes more than $742 billion to the U.S. GDP and employs more than 13 million people. The National Ocean Policy specifically calls out its importance. However, many of the 25,000 miles of inland, intracoastal and coastal waterways that link thousands of ports and harbors in the U.S. have never been completely surveyed. This means there are limited accurate charts that show sandbars, underwater obstructions and other potential hazards that could cause accidents.

In those areas that have been surveyed, approximately half of the depth sounding data shown on U.S. nautical charts is from before 1940, collected by antiquated leadline soundings and wire drags.  To survey the 500,000 square nautical miles of the most navigationally significant waters would require over 100 years based on our governmental agencies current capacity and using modern conventional methods.

The good news is that while few ships have a primary mission to collect bathymetric data, there are literally millions of recreational, pilot and tug boats, cruise ships and research vessels plying our waters and we now have the technology to enlist their assistance to efficiently contribute to the goals of the President’s National Ocean Policy.

This is where ARGUS™ — and maybe you! – comes into the picture. In 2010, SURVICE Engineering started testing ARGUS, a system that can use these vessels for the collection and processing of crowdsourced bathymetry data. ARGUS interfaces with existing GPS and depth sounding equipment on the vessels, and uses wireless technology (WiFi, cellular, and satellite) for automatic offloading to a centralized server. Here along with CARIS, marine GIS experts, the data is corrected, processed, managed and distributed via the internet to provide current water depths. To date, ARGUS pilot testing has processed more than 70 million crowdsourced bathymetry soundings.

Crowdsourcing data – that is, gathering information from multiple individuals – can significantly supplement and enhance the accuracy and efficiency of standard hydrographic surveying efforts conducted primarily by governmental entities. During initial trials in 2012 aboard the vessel National Geographic Explorer, United Kingdom Hydrographic Office nautical cartographers were “delighted with the quality” of data collected when compared to existing raster charts in Antarctica.

This image is the result of ARGUS processing in the shipping channel into the Baltimore Harbor, where the green dots indicate shoaling (shallower water than the rest of the channel) in the inbound lane.

Crowdsourced data using technology such as ARGUS will often be the only data available in an area because charting authorities may not have the resources or mandate to conduct surveys. Also, their larger ships may not be physically able to access the areas where smaller vessels routinely transit. While traditional surveys are done infrequently, crowdsourced data is being collected all the time and can provide up-to-date information. When crowdsourced data indicates areas of concern (such as illustrated in the figure below) the official ships can prioritize those areas, thus maximizing efficiency by saving valuable ship time and the associated resources.

The challenge is to ensure the reliability of crowdsourced data by managing and structuring the process to ensure that it is reliable, useable and accurate.  The patent-pending ARGUS system developed by SURVICE Engineering is one such reliable process. The compilation of multiple transits through an area will provide statistical confidence in measured depths even using the less-than-survey-quality sensors found on most small vessels. The CARIS software provides us the ability to manage multiple data sets and variable resolutions of those crowdsourced data. This is essential to our ability to use this data to create depth charts as well as to ground truth bathymetric LiDAR or satellite derived bathymetry.

In addition to collecting and processing bathymetry soundings, the ARGUS initiative is also processing water temperature data, and additional efforts are underway to integrate information about water quality and other environmental data that can similarly enhance our understanding of our waters.

As some Regional Ocean Partnerships start to compile and collect information (to ensure the safety and maintenance of current ocean uses and plan for new sustainable development while protecting ocean health) systems such as ARGUS can be used to collect essential information in a cost efficient manner. Any willing mariner can contribute to a better understanding of the waters they transit.

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