Summary: The world’s oceans are in crisis. Utilising 4IR technology such as machine learning, artificial intelligence and big data analysis allow provide information that allows us to tackle the challenges the oceans face in an unprecedented way. The below case studies provide an analysis of current technologies that are being used to ease the pressure on the global seas, whilst also allowing methods of prevention of future damage.

Humankind is inextricably linked our oceans. The dawn of the fourth industrial revolution has led to technological advancements that are helping solve some of the world’s greatest challenges and it is now being applied to the seas. Innovation, and disruptive technology are likely to hold the key to our ability to halt the catastrophic damage done to the oceans, helping us ease the pressure they face and protecting them for future generations. 

Below is a selection of innovations that are paving the way for easing the strain placed on the world’s oceans through technology.

1. Next generation Wave Energy 

The ocean is an enormous energy store and its potential to source and provide efficient, alternative sources of energy for global consumption is immense. For example, wave energy is estimated to hold 11,400 terawatt-hours per year, the equivalent to over 400 small nuclear power plants – but of sustainable energy. 

Technological innovation is helping to realise this potential by harnessing the power of waves and tides. For example, CETO 5, part of the “Carnegie Perth Wave Energy Project,” is multimillion-dollar initiative built to demonstrate the commercial viability of a large-scale wave power with zero-emission desalinated water. The CETO 5 is “a modular array of three, entirely-submerged 240-kilowatt buoys and water pumps”. As the waves move the buoys, its pumps are activated pushing pressurized water through power turbines while simultaneously feeding into a desalinization system.  According to Australian Renewable Energy Agency CEO Ivor Frischknecht, it’s the “first array of wave power generators to be connected to an electricity grid in Australia and worldwide.” The next hurdles are scaling up and making ocean energy harvest cost-efficient.

2. Utilising Ocean thermal energy conversion technology

The combination of floating platforms, simple turbines and tropical oceans could be the key to producing 30 percent or more of the total energy the world consumes today according to Lockheed Martin. ‘Ocean thermal energy conversion technology’ exploits temperature differences between shallow tropical waters and the deep sea to generate electricity. Drawing cold water in large volumes up from depths of over 1 kilometre through large flexible pipelines made with new composite materials and manufacturing techniques generates significant volumes of sustainable energy.

For example, the Makai Ocean Engineering’s ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) power plant in Hawaii is the world’s biggest operational facility of ocean thermal conversion technology, with an annual power generation capacity of 100kW, which is sufficient to power 120 homes.  The facility was connected to the US grid in August 2015 and is capable of constantly producing electricity 24h a day throughout the year.

In addition, Lockheed Martin is currently designing a plant with 100 times greater capacity off the coast of southern China in collaboration with Reignwood Group. The pilot OTEC plant will sit on a floating offshore platform in order to generate up to at least 10 megawatts of energy, enough to sustain the energy requirements of a smaller metropolis. The Chinese seas were chosen as a preferred location for the power plant due to the warm temperature of the water allowing for a greater degree of variation between the surface and sub-water temperatures, creating the perfect conditions for ocean thermal energy.

3.  Relieving the Pressure of Over-Fishing Using Aquapods 

The world’s oceans are running out of fish. In 2017, fish consumption hit a record high of 17kg per person and this demand has led to over fishing and put fish populations under extreme pressure. In an attempt to ease this pressure, the fishing industry has turned to fish farming. 

In 2014, the world ate more fish from farms than from the wild. However, where traditional methods of fish farming are often hindered by overcrowding, disease and environmental stress on the surrounding waterways, the development of a new form of underwater farming provides a solution to these challenges. Free floating, untethered deep ocean fish habitats, or “aquapod” cages, enable fish to live as wild as they could possibly be whilst still being farmed. Each pod is stocked with 2,000 hatchery-reared kampachi baby fish, which are fed a sustainable diet. The cage is made of brass mesh that eliminates biofouling whilst also minimising the need for cleaning. Marine biologists monitor the fish, maintaining data logs and transmitting GPS data to land-based research headquarters.

Currently being used in Hawaii, Mexico, and Panama in a project called ‘Velella’ run by Kampachi Farms, the aquapod innovation moves aquaculture further offshore, helping to mitigate problems of pollution and disease. Neil Anthony Sims, fisheries biologist and co-founder of Kampachi Farms said: "The project explores the potential of raising healthy fish in their natural environment with virtually no environmental impact on the underlying seafloor, surrounding water quality, or wild fish outside the Aquapod."

4.  Coastal Sensors

The key to understanding how to help ease the ocean’s crisis, or indeed any situation is careful observations and measurements. The key to observing and measuring, however, is being there, something that has always proved challenging for oceanographers.

The oceans present unique obstacles when it comes to placing sensors in the required environments. Instruments are limited by available power, exposure to the force of waves and can be corroded by salt water. However, the emergence of low-cost, connected sensors is allowing scientists to monitor coastlines in ways never possible before, critical when dealing with rapidly warming and increasingly more acidic oceans as a result of climate change. 

For example, using this miniaturized equipment to detect the species, concentrations, mass, chemical compositions, and even nucleotides (components of DNA) in seawater samples, allows scientists to identify microorganisms in seawater by scanning it with light and measuring the way they scatter light at different wavelengths. 

Further, a new technology, called ‘voltammetry’, can simultaneously detect a variety of chemical ions including oxygen, hydrogen sulfide, iron, and manganese to help scientists understand the composition of the oceanic waters and therefore where damage is being done so steps can be taken to prevent or reverse it. 

In addition, surfboard-embedded sensors can crowd-source data on temperature, salinity and pH similar to the way traffic data is sourced from smartphones. This data can be used to protect beachgoers in Australia, for example, as sonar imaging sensors detect sharks close to shore and push out real-time alerts to mobile devices on the beach warning people to stay out of the water. 

5. Biomimetic Robots

Biomimetics is the imitation of models, systems and elements of nature to solve complex human problems. This form of technological innovation allows close-up exploration of underwater life without disturbing the ecosystem. Biomimetic robots equipped with cameras and sensors are can operate remotely whilst continuously recording data, provinid minimally disruptive observations of marine behaviours, swim patterns, interactions and populations. 

For example, Robo-tuna, as developed by the US Navy, cruise the ocean on surveillance missions such as inspecting pipes on offshore oil rig and environmental monitoring. The GhostSwimmer model explores and maps shallow waters to make sure they’re safe for larger vessels, where Project Nemo can swim fast, up to 17 miles per hour as a defence tool against hostile boats.

According to the National University of Singapore, “In the near future, it would not be too tall an order for the team to produce a swarm of autonomous tiny robotic fishes to perform hazardous missions such as detecting nuclear wastes underwater or other tasks too dangerous for humans.” The team is currently putting the final touches to their ‘robotic sea turtle’ which could dive to deep depths vertically, like a real turtle, by just using its front and hind limb gait movements.”

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