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SuBastian and the Roboats:
Ocean Exploration’s Future

Jesse H. Ausubel,
Program for the Human Environment,
The Rockefeller University, New York City

A new vocabulary has taken over many domains of modern life. Think of Uber, GPS and self-driving cars. Think of voice-activated devices in our homes and offices. Think of precision agriculture and sensor arrays that allow a farmer to know the moisture needs of each square meter of crop. Think of IBM’s Watson computer doing medical diagnostics. Think of the “Revolution in Military Affairs” emphasizing reconnaissance, robotics and precision force.

All these associate with autonomy, sensors, precision, miniaturization, machine learning and artificial intelligence, and, of course, drones. They associate with better forms of energy storage and more asset sharing. These concepts tend to be modified by words such as smaller, lighter, faster, denser, cheaper and virtual. At the same time, they benefit from economies of scale and can form huge integrated systems, made possible by better information handling.

We are now entering a world of farming without farmers, flying without pilots, sailing without sailors. This will be the world of the 2020s, and ocean exploration must adapt, adopt and innovate. It will be the world of SuBastian and the Roboats—not a rock band but a supersmart ROV (SuBastian is Schmidt Ocean Institute’s ROV) and a fleet of self-guiding surface vessels—innovations emblematic of the 2016 National Ocean Exploration Forum, “Beyond the Ships, 2020-2025” (http://phe.rockefeller.edu/noef). I co-convened the forum with Vice Admiral Paul Gaffney (retired) in October at The Rockefeller University in New York City, and the resultant report will be ready around February.

Forum participants focused on sea technologies that represent the near future of ocean exploration: autonomous surface vehicles; autonomous undersea vehicles, including those that can hover and follow complex mid-water routes, in a wide range of sizes, capacities and endurance; autonomous and remotely operated cameras, from small to large; passive and active acoustic devices, including those that listen to marine life, 3D acoustic video cameras and new devices, some autonomous, to swath map the seafloor; devices for automatic depth profiling needing little deck space and no electric power sources; and gliders.

Going from small to micro, the forum considered new forms of biological sampling, such as naked DNA in seawater, or eDNA, shed by resident or passing organisms. The results from filtering a half liter of seawater for eDNA is astonishing; it can indicate species presence, even abundance, achieving dynamic results at lower cost superbly consistent with data obtained by traditional surveys. Without having to capture or photograph animals, we can know what lives in the water.

The ocean exploration community is considering what we might do collectively, how we might share data to create eye-opening resources that might engage many millions of people. Campaign planning in the Arctic, Gulf of Mexico and Southeast Atlantic Bight is already underway.

Exploration begins with mapping, such as the global high-resolution General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans, which might cost less than $10 per square kilometer with new technology. Seafloor geologists are urging initiation of a Global Geological Survey of the Oceans and transects or traverses that can demonstrate its feasibility.

Technological advancement will spur change in the organizations and programs in which we operate. To address the changing landscape, the Washington, D.C.-based Consortium for Ocean Leadership agreed to host a meeting this year to explore refreshing the U.S. institutional landscape to accommodate the new style of ocean exploration.

So, do we foresee a world of exploring without human explorers? On the contrary, many more people will earn the title of explorer by using emerging technologies, but we and our growing array of tools will play new roles and multiply the scale and scope of exploration. We look forward to accelerated adventure, discovery and gain in the era of SuBastian and the Roboats.

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