Today's technologies allow us to explore the ocean in increasingly systematic, scientific, and noninvasive ways. The NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER) promotes the innovative use of existing technologies while investing in new technologies and state-of-the-art platforms and vehicles. We work both internally and externally, supporting technology activities onboard the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, in partnership with government agencies, academia, and the private sector. Our work is helping to build the scope of NOAA’s observational infrastructure that is critical to sustaining the environmental intelligence our citizens and businesses rely upon.
OER's technology goals are to:
Since our establishment in 2001, we have been involved in a wide range of technology activities that have helped enhance our ability to explore the ocean and deliver the reliable and authoritative science that is foundational to providing foresight about future conditions, enhancing resiliency, and informing the decisions we confront every day on this dynamic planet.
Below are a few examples of technological advancements that we have been involved in.
Task Force for Ocean Exploration and Research Technology and Infrastructure
The Task Force for Ocean Exploration and Research Technology and Infrastructure, or "TFORT," is an interagency task force established by the Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology Interagency Working Group on Ocean Partnerships (IWG-OP) to advise, assist, and make recommendations to the IWG-OP on policies, procedures, plans, and activities related to ocean exploration and undersea research technology and infrastructure.
OER co-chairs the Task Force with the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Ocean Sciences. Federal government members include NOAA, NASA, NSF, the Office of Naval Research, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and the U.S. Geological Survey.
TFORT's five-year goals and priorities plan (pdf 2.5 MB) calls on the Task Force to:
For more information, download the TFORT presentation from the Marine Technology Society/IEEE Oceans 2013 Conference (pdf 6.7 MB).
Telepresence involves the use of satellite and high-speed Internet pathways to deliver data and information in real time to explorers who remain on shore, but can actively participate in expedition operations. Through many years of collaborative efforts, OER, the Institute for Exploration, and the University of Rhode Island (URI) have worked to determine the most effective and efficient application of this rapidly evolving technology for ocean science, exploration, education, and outreach. Over the years, we have developed and refined complex ship- and shore-based operating protocols; brought new ship- and shore-based telepresence systems online; and built the hub for this technology at URI, called the Inner Space Center.
Okeanos Explorer Multibeam Applications
NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer is outfitted with one of the very few deep-water multibeam sonars capable of collecting water column backscatter data. In 2009, using this sonar, the ship unexpectedly imaged a large plume of methane gas seeping into the water column at Mendocino Ridge off the coast of California. Partnering with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the University of New Hampshire Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping Joint Hydrography Center, a 2011 expedition in the Gulf of Mexico was conducted to follow up on this capability and test the feasibility of using sonar to map gases in the water column. With its increased swath width, the multibeam sonar offers the possibility of greatly increasing seep survey efficiency. In addition to detection and localization, the sonars on the Okeanos Explorer were assessed for their ability to provide information regarding the seep morphologies, general makeup, and relative densities.
Since initial testing, multibeam sonar on the ship has been used to also identify gas plumes along the U.S. Atlantic Coast. We continue to work with partner scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey and BOEM to fully understand the implications of these discoveries for the scientific and resource management communities.
The National Science Foundation and Office of Naval Research, with contributions from OER, funded the development of the power system for the hybrid remotely operated vehicle, Nereus . An unmanned vehicle, Nereus was able to swim freely as an autonomous underwater vehicle to survey large areas of the depths, map the seafloor, and give scientists a broad overview. When Nereus located something interesting, the vehicle's support team was able to bring the vehicle back on board the ship and transform it into a remotely operated vehicle tethered to the ship via a micro-thin, fiber-optic cable. Through this tether, Nereus could transmit high-quality, real-time video images and receive commands from skilled pilots on the ship to collect samples or conduct experiments with a manipulator arm. Sadly, Nereus was lost during a 2014 expedition to study deep-sea trenches near New Zealand.
OER supported the development and application of the deep-sea observatory, Eye-in-the-Sea. This autonomous, battery-powered data logging, video capture, and illumination system can be placed on the seafloor and left for 24 to 48 hours to observe animal life in the dark depths with as little disturbance as possible. The system uses bioluminescence to its advantage. It can detect animals nearby when they give off bioluminescent light, trigger a video camera to record the light being produced, and then turn on a red light out of the animals' normal vision range. The result is the collection of illuminated footage without alerting the subject or scaring it away. The system can also be programmed to film surrounding areas at scheduled intervals. In the past, camera systems used on the seafloor have relied on bright lights, which frighten those creatures accustomed to the darkness of the deep.
In 2005, OER sponsored the Operation Deep Scope expedition to look into the deep ocean with new eyes and reveal new organisms, behaviors, visual adaptations, and fluorescent compounds using the Eye-in-the-Sea technology. Expedition results further our understanding of the organisms and habitats of the deep ocean, providing information needed to properly manage and protect important deep-sea environments.
Tethys In-site Mass Spectrometer
OER contributed to the development of the Tethys in situ mass spectrometer. Tethys is a small, self-contained mass spectrometer capable of operation to 5,000 meters depth. The Tethys instrument can quantitatively identify a wide range of hydrocarbons at trace concentrations (minimum limits of detection typically 500 parts per trillion) in the subsurface environment. Tethys has been successfully deployed on autonomous underwater vehicles, remotely operated vehicles, towfish, manned submersibles, and with divers for a variety of purposes, including deep ocean scientific exploration and mapping missions as well as commercial offshore oil and gas leak detection and cleanup.