Sharing Resources: The case for open maritime technology infrastructures

Paulo Mónica


1. Introduction

With over 70% of the Earth's surface covered by water, the ocean constitutes a vast and largely unexplored frontier, holding untold potential for scientific discovery and innovation. It is also a still dormant source of much needed resources. Exploring the ocean may be one of the most dauting, fascinating and complex tasks that human beings have ever attempted.

The need for systematic ocean exploration and survey is clear and pressing. The ocean is a vast and greatly untapped resource that holds enormous potential, for economic development and as an environmental protection agent. It is a critical source of food, energy, and minerals, and it plays a vital role in regulating the Earth's climate. Obtaining a better understanding of the ocean's vast resources and its ecological importance will, therefore, help us develop sustainable strategies to manage our planet's natural resources.

However, the ocean’s vastness, depth, and complex environment present unique challenges. Exploring the deep sea is an endeavour inevitably associated with extreme and inhospitable conditions, especially those found at great depths. Factors such as crushing pressure, frigid temperatures, and near-total darkness create an environment that is exceptionally challenging and dangerous for humans to navigate. By incorporating advanced automation in deep-sea exploration, we can minimise the exposure of humans to these harsh conditions, significantly reducing the risk of accidents or injuries. Furthermore, automated systems can perform tasks with greater precision, efficiency, and endurance than human operators, which enables the gathering of more accurate data and a better understanding of this realm.

Therefore, it’s possible to overcome many of the obstacles involved in ocean exploration using ever more advanced technology. However, developing technology for maritime environments poses its own set of harsh problems and difficulties, which are often insurmountable.

2. Technological challenges

The technology used for ocean exploration must be durable and resistant to the harsh conditions of the ocean environment. Namely, it must be able to withstand extreme conditions, operate at great depths, survive considerable temperature and salinity changes, and endure the combined effects of a multitude of corrosion agents. Second, it must be precise and accurate. Not only is the ocean a dynamic and constantly changing environment, but it also presents severe environment-related constraints, a notable one being the omnipresent difficulties of underwater positioning and navigation. Third, it must be versatile and adaptable, as different areas of the ocean require different types of technology. Finally, it imposes high degrees of endurance on the equipment. The vast ocean expanses that require further exploration, and the great depths involved in deep-sea research — with the associated long dive times — impose high levels of on-site endurance to the used platforms and equipment. Operating unassisted for longer periods becomes a crucial requirement for deep-sea exploration equipment and robotic platforms. The used devices and platforms not only need to function autonomously and efficiently, with minimal need for human intervention or maintenance, but they must do so for extended periods of time.

Naturally, such technology comes with a hefty price tag, making ocean exploration (or use) an expensive endeavour. This cost difficulty is also compounded by the fact that the set of equipment and resources required to operate at sea is vast and eclectic and poses immense logistic challenges. Acquiring such assets and capabilities is expensive for any individual organisation. The harsh and hostile marine environment is also very unforgiving and can take a heavy toll on ships and equipment, with direct implications on maintenance and replacement costs. Additionally, there is a vast amount of expertise involved in maritime operations, which cannot be easily created or transferred. Together, these difficulties pose severe—and often insuperable—hurdles to any economic or scientific agents that might otherwise bring their operations to sea.

3. The role of open infrastructures

One way to mitigate these costs is to create shareable technological infrastructures containing all the necessary skills and resources needed for successful maritime operations, and make them available to any interested entities. By using those resources, facilities, and skill sets, the economic agents will drastically lower their individual operating costs, have the capability to use more advanced scientific equipment and highly skilled personnel than what they themselves possess, and allow their business teams (be it industry or research) a greater focus on their operational goals, rather than on equipment, logistics, and support.

Shared resources can include everything from research vessels to ROVs and AUVs, sonar systems, and other specialised equipment. By sharing resources, we can reduce duplication and waste, making the most efficient use of available technology. Overall, creating such capable technological infrastructures, whose resources can be openly used by interested entities can lead to large synergies and lower costs, making it easier and more cost-effective to operate at sea. This, in turn, can foster the growth of the blue economy, as more companies and organisations will be able to develop maritime activities.

A lateral—but also vital—effect of sharing such resources is that it will lead to a more natural and easier sharing of data and research findings, facilitating collaboration between researchers and promoting scientific discovery. By creating a more accessible and collaborative approach to ocean exploration, we foster the unlocking of the ocean's potential for innovation and discovery, benefiting all of humanity.

4.The TEC3SEA Infrastructure

Industrial companies have carried out major actions to improve their operational efficiency, acting upon predictive maintenance, setup and changeover minimisation, human resources upskilling and adequate selection and use of manufacturing execution system (MES), enterprise resource planning (ERP) and planning and scheduling tools.

One example of a direct answer to the mentioned difficulties is the TEC4SEA Research Infrastructure, founded in Portugal by INESC TEC and CINTAL. It is an open distributed research infrastructure, whose skills, equipment, resources, and facilities can be used by the external academic and industrial communities, to support them in their research, development, and validation of maritime technology. It possesses a set of skills and resources which range from pure conceptual research to field deployment missions, with strong industrial and logistic capacities in the middle tier of prototype production. As such, it constitutes an invaluable asset for the research and industrial communities requiring support for their operations at sea.

Being an innovative scientific infrastructure, and considering the immense impact it may have in the ocean-related scientific and industrial fabrics, its strategic interest has been recognised by the Portuguese agency for science (FCT), research and technology, which led to its inclusion in the National Roadmap of strategic Research Infrastructures. It is certainly an example to be followed.