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The space-age tech we need to save our planet

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Many mysteries remain around the ocean, despite its critical importance to the planet’s future. KAUST scientists are working on new ways to explore under the waves, including wearable, flexible electronics and underwater wireless communication.

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This article is sponsored by KAUST.

The landing of NASA’s Perseverance Rover on Mars in February, which began a two-year search for evidence of microbial life on the planet, is a massive scientific milestone.

Perseverance is the most sophisticated robotic geologist built. Fitted with a high-resolution, color, 3D panoramic camera, Perseverance is blasting data and images of the Martian landscape back to Earth from 173 million miles away. Amazingly, this data often reaches Earth in around three minutes.

Our capacity to receive images and interact with autonomous vehicles on Mars dwarfs our capacity to observe Earth’s deep ocean. It’s an embarrassing reminder of the abysmal technological gap between space exploration and oceanic exploration. We are yet to transmit a single image without cables from the seafloor to the ocean surface, just 2.4 miles above, because the acoustic technology used for underwater communications is too slow for near-real time video streaming. The acoustic waves that submarine communications rely on take 3.4 seconds to travel a distance of 3.1 miles under water. For reference, images from space travel around 150,000 times faster. 

And the technological gap extends far beyond data communications. We are yet to develop an autonomous vehicle able to roam the sea floor for a full day, compared to at least two full years of autonomous Mars exploration with NASA’s Perseverance Rover. 

And the technology gap is growing as ocean exploration technology has remained largely stagnant over the past five decades. The conductivity, temperature, depth (CTD) probe — the workhorse of oceanography — is fundamentally the same as the ones used three decades ago. The SCUBA gear we put on to conduct scientific research today is very much the same as the gear we first used 40 years ago. As is the research vessels and deep-sea research submersibles. The only underwater laboratory in the world, Aquarius, is about to be decommissioned and is the same one that NASA designed and NOAA placed in the water in 2001. 

We submit that there is currently no innovation happening for underwater technology. It’s particularly frustrating to those who see the potential in a "blue economy," which would be enabled by a deeper understanding of the oceans and a restoration of the abundance of marine life.

The reality is that our capacity to sense the marine environment remains primitive, and embarrassing. Considered that Malaysian airlines MH 370 fell into the Indian Ocean and was never found, despite major efforts. There are, however, a few small glimmers of hope. 

The sensor revolution that is affecting every aspect of our lives, from phones to cars to wearables, is finally making its way underwater. At King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), we lead and funded an international effort to develop the new generation of marine sensors; wearables for marine life. This proved challenging, as it’s hard to imagine a medium less welcoming to electronics than the ocean: An environment corrosive to standard minerals, conductive to electricity, where pressure mounts to enormous values as you go deeper, where microbes grow on every surface and where data transmission remains a challenge. 

We developed novel technology based on printed, flexible electronics. The Marine Skin conforms to the bodies of marine animals, unlike the bulky sensor packages used previously. We also developed graphene-based sensor technology, as we found graphene is a wonderful material to overcome the many constraints of the marine environment for electronics, including preventing the growth of microbes. However, despite these advances, submarine wireless data transmission and retrieval remains challenging. 

Underwater optical wireless communication is emerging as a possible solution with the groundbreaking work first demonstrated by Ooi and collaborators at KAUST, involving transmitting data two gigabit per second across 65 feet, using laser-based technology. That’s equivalent to downloading a standard one gigabyte movie in four seconds. 

A change of optical receivers and relays intersected at about 328-foot distances could possibly transmit optical data from the seafloor to the surface, but as a cable will be required, it would still tether our ocean exploration to the sea surface with cables. 

NASA’s Perseverance Rover exposes long-pending challenges as we inaugurate the 2021-2030 United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, aiming at supporting efforts to reverse the cycle of declining ocean health and support the development of a "blue economy." But how can science support what it can hardly observe? 

The UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development program does not address the need to advance marine technology. We believe this to be a major omission that perpetuates the technology gap. For the UN Decade of Ocean Science to truly support the development of a sustainable blue economy it must aim to bring submarine exploration to match the technological sophistication of space exploration, overcoming the chronic neglect of our own ocean. This stagnation of ocean technology is an unacceptable roadblock for the sustainable use of the ocean. 

We witness entrepreneurs, including Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson, competing in the space exploration race, and indeed it is likely that the impetus to innovate must come from the minds of bold innovators rather than governments. 

Who among us is bold enough to help ocean exploration make the quantum leaps necessary to catch up with space exploration? 

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