In Canada, extreme service in the name of marine science

It would be a daunting task for even the most skilled field service crew: maintain and repair 850 kilometers (530 miles) of advanced fiber-optic cables, about 400 scientific instruments and more than 5,000 high-tech sensors spread across remote underwater terrain.

Making the job even more difficult? All of this sensitive high-tech equipment is located in the deepest recesses of the ocean.

These are the challenges facing Ocean Networks Canada (ONC), a nonprofit research consortium based out of the University of Victoria, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. ONC operates three underwater observatories that stream 24/7 real-time data over the internet to scientists, educators, government, industry and the public from some of the most inaccessible environments on the planet.

When ONC needs to make a service call, its technicians can’t simply pack their tools and hit the water. Due to the difficulty and expense of accessing these remote underwater observatories, the group can only undertake one maintenance expedition per site each year, so each mission requires meticulous planning. How the team pulls off this feat — and maintains 98 percent uptime — is a testament to its expertise and dedication.

A Custom-Built Submersible Repair Truck

To install, repair and replace the scientific instruments and sensors in its underwater observatories, Ocean Networks Canada uses a Remotely Operated Platform for Ocean Sciences, or ROPOS. About the size of a compact car, ROPOS is an unmanned underwater robot connected to a ship by a series of cables, which an on-surface operator uses to navigate it and control manipulator and cutting arms, cameras, sonar and telemetry systems.

The team at the Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility (CSSF), a non-profit organization that specializes in marine exploration, customized ROPOS with the specialized equipment ONC needs to conduct its underwater maintenance.

“Most ROVs could never carry equipment like that, which makes ROPOS unique,” says Keith Shepherd, CSSF’s general manager. “We just latch the payload to the underside of ROPOS and take it down to be installed. With ROPOS, we can complete a mission in about a third of the time it would take an ordinary ROV.”

This fast turnaround is crucial, because the cost of hiring a ship can top $100,000 a day.

The high pressure and cold temperatures of the depths at which ROPOS must operate create unique engineering problems. “Delamination of rubber seals, flexing of wires within the cables, corrosion, coating failures — there are so many points in the vehicle that can die,” Shepherd explains.

With ROPOS, we can complete a mission in about a third of the time it would take an ordinary ROV. — Keith Shepherd, Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility

To prevent operational failure during its use, ROPOS has built-in backup systems and impressive customized engineering, according to Shepherd.

But ROPOS can’t do all the maintenance needed to keep the observatories up and running, especially when it comes to servicing at least 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) of underwater cable.

“We work with the Canadian Coast Guard and with private contractors to service our infrastructure,” says Benoît Pirenne, Ocean Networks Canada’s director of user engagement. “This year the Nautilus, Bob Ballard’s exploration vessel, will assist us as we repair fiber optic cable at a depth of 1,200 meters.”

Round-the-Clock Repair Team

Currently, no formal programs exist to teach technicians how to pilot and operate an ROV, let alone a customized one like ROPOS. Shepherd’s group largely recruits its team from an engineering technologist program at a local community college in Victoria.

“We hire for technical skill in mechanical, electrical and computer engineering, and train them how to pilot the ROPOS both in-house and on the job,” says Shepherd.

Training a well-prepared and flexible team is essential, because they typically work around the clock when they’re aboard the ship on a service expedition.

“Planning is really, really important,” Shepherd says. “It’s task-based. You prepare for a dive, get the equipment and vehicle ready, do the dive, recover and immediately plan for the next dive. It’s a continuous flow of working through the priorities.”

Wiring the Abyss

One of the three ONC research sites off Canada’s Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the NEPTUNE Observatory, effectively extends internet connectivity 250 kilometers (155 miles) from the west coast of North America, to beyond the edge of the continental shelf and the start of the abyssal plain, more than 2,600 meters (1.6 miles) below the surface of the ocean.

“NEPTUNE is the one of biggest science experiments ever conducted,” says Pirenne. “The high-bandwidth, cabled observatory connects a variety of devices and infrastructure to the internet, including digital cameras, acoustic imaging systems and hydrophones.”

Each of the hundreds of devices that are part of the NEPTUNE system house multiple sensors, which results in thousands of sensors sending data over the internet in real time — roughly 280 gigabytes of data every day.

“It’s intended to be open, free-access oceanographic data that anyone can use,” Pirenne says. “There’s actually a large volunteer community of both professional and amateur researchers that watch the feeds and make annotations online about what they find.”

The data gathered by ONC ranges from purely scientific research to actionable intelligence for governmental policy decisions. For example, underwater listening posts in the Gulf of Georgia north of Seattle provide insights about the migratory habits of endangered killer whales to help divert shipping traffic from their paths. Other data lets shellfish farmers predict how rising ocean acidity will affect their operations.

One major project, due to be completed in 2019, is Canada’s first early-warning system for a massive tsunami which could inundate the Pacific Northwest. Scientists believe that such a tsunami is inevitable due to a long-anticipated “megathrust” quake which is expected to occur along the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the coast of Washington state.

“The early-warning system will makes decision-making easier, by telling us where to deploy emergency services,” says Pirenne.

ONC is also poised to launch another major mission in June 2018. For the “Wiring the Abyss” expedition, cable-laying and research vessels will conduct round-the-clock operations to maintain and expand instrumentation off the west coast of Vancouver Island, with the aim of enabling more data-gathering than ever before.

“Before underwater observatories extended the internet to the seafloor, scientists and oceanographers used to drop devices off the side of a ship, collect data for two weeks, go home and extrapolate the results,” says Pirenne. “Now it’s high-resolution data all the time, 24/7.”

ABOUT Nevin Thompson

Nevin Thompson is a journalist, copywriter and a content strategist who works in a variety of different verticals.