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The Digital Ocean: The Next Information Superhighway
Gary Gysin
When the term “Information Highway” was coined, little did the majority of the world realize the impact this concept and the resulting Internet Superhighway would have on humanity. In 1994, MIT said: “The information superhighway brings together millions of individuals who could exchange information with one another.”

Spring forward to today. You can simply “Google” anything and receive an instantaneous response to gain immediate knowledge. This is our expectation—immediate access to data anywhere in the world, day or night.

In reality, instant access to data is only true for less than one-quarter of our planet. For the remaining three-quarters, the oceans, there is a huge information infrastructure gap, with limited to no real-time access to data. The Digital Revolution has occurred on land, but not in our oceans.

The world’s economies are tightly linked to the oceans. More than 90 percent of global trade is carried by ships with goods worth more than $4 trillion. These economic forces, coupled with the sustainable management of our ocean environment, are key drivers of the blue economy. The common denominator for this growth is the need for real-time ocean data.

The majority of the world does not realize our dependency on the oceans for life’s basic necessities (oxygen, food, weather). Without the ability to have pervasive ocean information and information exchange, we will not be able to tackle some of the most challenging global issues. To help solve the international issues of dwindling fisheries/seafood supplies, energy shortages and climate change, we must progress our ability to understand the oceans, which will require an exponential growth and deployment of sensors and a global communications infrastructure to help monitor and manage the oceans.

In 2015, more than 190 world leaders committed to 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) spanning initiatives to help end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, fix climate change, and improve life on land and in our oceans. Among the SDGs is #14, pertaining to the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans. This is a fundamental requirement, and, if not addressed, will have severe consequences for our planet. Just think of the ramifications to the 2.6 billion people who currently rely on seafood as their main source of protein.

A vision for the Digital Ocean is emerging: a diverse, networked array of platforms and sensors that enable connectivity across and through the ocean depths and to the air above, providing instant access to information. This vision will take time and collaboration across industry, government, NGOs and academia. It requires unmanned and manned systems working together to collect, exchange and communicate data.

Before the Digital Ocean becomes a reality there are challenges we have to address. Fundamentally, we need to create an information highway for the oceans. We need to deploy sensors to collect real-time data on climate change, weather, seismic activity, ocean currents, fish migration and other biological or environmental conditions. We need renewable energy for long-duration operations, as well as extreme reliability for ocean infrastructure to handle typically unpredictable, harsh ocean conditions. We need to reduce the cost and risk of ocean operations. The current acquisition, maintenance and operational costs for ocean operations are prohibitive for most businesses.

With the advent of unmanned systems, the risks and high costs associated with manned ocean operations (i.e., ships) are greatly reduced. We need to let the unmanned systems tackle the dull, dangerous and dirty jobs to safeguard human life and improve overall operational efficiency.

The oceans are data rich, yet without an easy, reliable and cost-effective communications infrastructure, they remain an untapped information resource. The good news is we’re not starting from scratch. Commercially available technologies, both manned and unmanned, are on the market and working today, but more development is needed.

Creating the Digital Ocean will require an ecosystem of partners with a common objective: connectivity anywhere on or in the oceans.

Whether it’s international trade, undersea communications, weather, food sources or jobs, our economic future depends on sustaining a healthy global ocean. To do so, we need to reliably collect and communicate information from all parts of the ocean. This requires a renewed dedication to network and communications innovation that fueled the World Wide Web. We must start collaborating now on setting up the Digital Ocean.

The Digital Ocean is a long-term endeavor that doesn’t exist yet, but its seeds are present around the world. It requires more than technology and building out the fundamental infrastructure. It will also require thoughtful and collaborative work on international maritime law and regulations, global interoperability and data standards, and security. The good news is we have the experts and technologies at our disposal today.

The time to get going is now. Our oceans are ailing and need our attention. Without healthy oceans, we cannot realize a healthy ocean economy. This is why I ask you to start thinking now about the role your organization can play in the Digital Ocean.

Looking ahead, the opportunities are vast, and the stakes are high. I invite you to join me to create the Digital Ocean—the next global communications frontier that will serve not just our growing needs but also the needs of future generations.



Gary Gysin is the president and CEO of Silicon Valley-based Liquid Robotics, a Boeing company, and commissioner of the Global Information Infrastructure Commission. Liquid Robotics is a pioneer and leader in unmanned surface vehicles serving the defense, oil and gas and scientific markets. Under Gysin’s leadership, the company is undergoing a period of unprecedented growth and industry recognition.


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