Telepresence is the concept of providing an individual or group of individuals with the data and information necessary for participation in an event or effort live when those individuals are not physically present for the event. This concept is not new, as telepresence technology has been applied in a many ways for decades by government agencies and private industry.
It has only been in recent years, however, that this technology has been adapted for oceanographic work to connect scientists, teachers, and students on shore to live images and real-time data from ships at sea. Telepresence is providing a portal into the excitement of oceanographic discovery and demonstrating to a broad audience the importance of exploring and protecting our largely unknown ocean.
Through many years of extensive collaborative efforts, NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER), the Sea Research Foundation’s Institute for Exploration (now called the Ocean Exploration Center), and the University of Rhode Island (URI) worked to determine the most effective and efficient application of rapidly evolving telepresence technology for ocean science and exploration and for education and outreach.
With each subsequent year came new challenges and innovations. Over the years, the partners developed and refined complex ship-and-shore-based operating protocols, brought new shipboard and shore-based telepresence systems online, and built the hub for this technology, called the Inner Space Center (ISC) at URI. The ISC includes a production studio for live and post-produced education and outreach efforts and a ‘Mission Control Center’ for ship-to-shore connectivity to support telepresence-enabled expeditions.
NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer underwent extensive refitting to become the first federal platform customized for telepresence-enabled systematic ocean exploration. And, Exploration Command Centers (ECCs) were developed at NOAA facilities around the country.
The application of telepresence technology for ship-based work is extremely efficient as it permits unlimited access to personnel on shore, transcending schedules, expertise, skills, and abilities of traditional shipboard teams. Telepresence also enables the development of partnerships between geographically dispersed groups who otherwise might not have the opportunity to collaborate due to cost or logistics. And, using this technology allows for the most efficient use of all resources, as access to data and information between ship and shore is immediate and sustained for the duration of an expedition.
Web-based access to data, products, and information between the ship and shore is essential for real-time collaboration to be effective. Recent improvements in video streaming via standard Internet and the advent of online chatting have enabled participation from any location with Internet access. The continuing evolution of operating protocols, refinement of effective data management and distribution processes, and effective training of participants to operate between ship and shore are also key elements of this paradigm that continue to improve along with the development and application of this incredible technology for education and outreach purposes.
Each field season brings new challenges and opportunities to provide the most meaningful remote experience possible to those on shore and to provide the most effective and efficient collaboration for operations at sea.
The ability to watch the live events aboard telepresence-enabled ships is not limited to those with access to an Exploration Command Center. For example, capabilities today enable users to view live feeds from the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer via the Internet on the Ocean Explorer website during active expeditions. This brings real-time science, exploration, and excitement of discoveries into classrooms, newsrooms, and living rooms, opening new educational opportunities that are a major part of the Okeanos Explorer’s mission for the advancement of knowledge.
As technologies continue to evolve, so too will telepresence capabilities for ocean exploration continue to expand, bringing with them new ways of exploring and communicating about our little known ocean world.