DARPA Progress With ‘Ocean Of Things’ All-Seeing Eye On The High Seas

Hellen Wadman

DARPA has awarded a contract for the next phase of development of its Ocean of Things (OoT), a project to seed the seas with thousands of floating sensors, monitoring everything that passes from aircraft to submarines. The name is a play on the Internet of Things and the aim is […]

DARPA has awarded a contract for the next phase of development of its Ocean of Things (OoT), a project to seed the seas with thousands of floating sensors, monitoring everything that passes from aircraft to submarines.

The name is a play on the Internet of Things and the aim is to achieve persistent maritime situational awareness over large ocean areas. While satellites can provide some information, DARPA project manager John Waterson points out that there are gaps in their coverage – optical satellites cannot see through clouds, radar satellites only have limited coverage, and none of them can say much about what is going on underwater.

Floating sensors, known as floats, can gather far more detailed information, and can remain at sea for months at a time. There is a network of almost 4,000 Argo science floats around the world, gathering data on ocean temperature and salinity. Waterson wants to see much larger arrays of low-cost floats with more sensors, floats which would carry out missions lasting up to a year before scuttling themselves and degrading. The floats are environmentally friendly, avoiding the use of toxic materials.

The cellphone industry has developed plenty of affordable, miniature sensors, and the OoT is leveraging this technology.

“Mission sensors include cameras, software defined radio, AIS receivers, microphones, and hydrophones,” says Waterson.

The new contract was awarded at the end of July to technology company PARC, whose 18-kilo, solar-powered glass float design won out ahead of two others in the first phase. The floats are sensor nodes which will pass data via satellite to a cloud network for real-time analysis. The OoT will combine data from multiple floats, seeing the whole picture rather than the single pixel gathered by one sensor, as Waterson puts in.

A key element of the OoT is its hydrophone, a sensitive underwater microphone or passive sonar which can pick up engines, screws and other sounds from ships and submarines. Floating sonobuoys dropped from aircraft have been used to locate submarines since WWII, but these only operate for a few hours. The OoT hydrophone has to operate for a whole year – and it has to be affordable. In 2019, researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography made a prototype high-fidelity hydrophone for the OoT which they estimated could be mass produced for $100-$150.

DARPA plans to carry out tests with thousand-float arrays in the Southern California Bight and Gulf of Mexico later this year. Initially they will be arranged at about one float per three square kilometers. Waterson believes separation can be increased to one float per twenty square kilometers while maintaining coverage. He is also talking about much bigger arrays in future, of tens of thousands of floats.

In addition to obvious military and border protection use – no vessel could slip through the dense field of OoT sensors, on or under the water – the OoT will produce a mass of data of interest to oceanographers, meteorologists and biologists, with plans to share raw data online with researchers. The OoT may be able to monitor marine mammal like whales, watch hurricanes form from the inside, and track changes in ocean temperature.

In this context, Waterson says that people often mention Flight MH370, the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that disappeared in Southern Indian Ocean in 2014. If there had been an OoT in the area, a plane crash could have been detected and the crash site located. However, DARPA’s main interest is likely to be in military applications.

“The persistent coverage provided by dispersed sensors provides round-the-clock coverage that other sources of data like an MPA [maritime patrol aircraft] or a SAR [synthetic aperture radar] satellite, which cover a given area for a certain amount of time before moving on, cannot,” says Dr​. Sidharth Kaushal, an expert on sea power at the U.K. defense think tank RUSI.

Kaushal notes that as well as directly observing vessels and aircraft, the OoT will be able to measure variables like temperature, ocean salinity and ambient underwater noise, which are important for calibrating sonar during anti-submarine operations. The OoT will not be limited to any specific role; the variety of sensors, coupled with powerful data-processing techniques, mean it might be reconfigured to deal with emerging threats. For example, OoT might form a defensive picket to detect, track and locate incoming Russian Poseidon nuclear torpedoes so they could be intercepted.

“This fits into a wider concept of Mosaic Warfare creating a system the components of which can reform and interact in multiple ways rather than relying on a hierarchical system,” says Kaushal.

In some ways the OoT parallels the network of surveillance platforms China is building in the South China Sea, which are also gathering scientific and military data. However China’s Blue Ocean sensors are tethered in place and appear to be mainly for radar and optical observation; there are believed to be hydrophone arrays on the sea bed. By contrast the OoT is much smaller and expendable, and could be deployed anywhere that the U.S. requires detailed, persistent observation of maritime activity, thousands of floating eyes to see over, on and under the sea.

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