Hakai Magazine

A transatlantic fiber optic cable is suspended off the coast of Marseilles, France. Photo by Corbis

Building a Smart Internet

These scientists want to add sea floor Internet relays to the Internet of Things.

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by Kate Sheridan

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The latest technology trend is the Internet of Things, in which consumer tech designers fall over themselves to get a bevy of sensors and an Internet connection into everything you can imagine. This futuristic vision has given rise to Wi-Fi-enabled diapers and connected cutlery, but also more obviously useful items like energy-saving smart thermostats or streamable home security systems. At a recent scientific meeting in Montreal, Canada, geophysicist Chris Barnes laid out the next realm of technology that could see the Internet of Things treatment in a big way: the physical backbone of the Internet itself.

If Barnes and his colleagues’ plan is adopted, the cables and connectors that crisscross the globe will be outfitted with scientific sensors that can do everything from detect tsunamis to monitor the effects of climate change.

Each day at least a trillion dollars in financial transactions, reams of scientific data, and more than 3.8 million cat photos are carried along undersea telecommunication cables that connect every continent save Antarctica. This “series of tubes” isn’t perfect, and every 70 kilometers or so cable engineers install a repeater to preserve the signal. These repeaters, says Barnes, would be very convenient places to attach scientific sensors.

As the chair of a United Nations task force, Barnes is testing the feasibility of creating “smart” Internet cables by putting a suite of sensors—a thermometer, a pressure sensor, and an accelerometer—into repeater hubs.

These three sensors would provide a wealth of valuable information. Temperature sensors, for instance, can measure how climate change alters global ocean circulation patterns, which, in turn, affects fish stocks and the intensity of storms. Changes in water pressure help measure tidal heights and long-term trends in sea level, and even warn of approaching tsunamis or storms. And accelerometers, which track ground motion, can detect earthquakes and undersea landslides.

These types of sensors are already in use on sea floor cables, although not widely. Yet as with the Internet itself, scale matters. While ocean observatories cover a small part of the globe, adding these sensors to Internet repeaters could let scientists monitor far more.

One potential problem with this plan is that sea floor telecommunication cables are left in the ocean for decades. Dragging a cable up from the sea floor just to repair or calibrate the sensors isn’t feasible.

To demonstrate that the sensors can survive and won’t be a burden to normal operations, Barnes is working on a test cable that could be deployed as early as 2017, as long as the task force can find a suitable location. Barnes hopes to secure an industry sponsor, or, since the task force involves UN agencies, he suggests the World Bank might make the installation of sensors a funding requirement for cable projects in developing countries.

Yet even as Barnes continues his search for support, other similar projects are moving forward. Arctic Fibre Inc. is building a cable from Tokyo to London, weaving through the Canadian Arctic on its way. The company has teamed up with John Orcutt, an oceanographer with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, to outfit the cable with sensors. Orcutt says he’s interested in using temperature and pressure sensors to measure the changes in sea level, water temperature, and ice cover in the Arctic. He also wants to use acoustic sensors to monitor Arctic mammal populations.

“Scientifically, it would be extraordinarily interesting to watch the Arctic during the next 30 to 50 years,” says Orcutt. “Having a cable observatory that can make physical measurements, chemical measurements, biological measurements over a long period of time would be invaluable.”

Barnes thinks this technology could wind up being a win-win for science and industry. “We think the submarine telecom industry could have a number of benefits from this. They could be more visible to the public and decision makers by saying, ‘not only are we providing this vital service, but we are also in a position to provide valuable environmental data—which the planet needs.’”