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January 7, 2020

DARPA Floats an ‘Ocean of Things’

George Leopold

The Pentagon’s top research agency is pushing the notion of a data lake to new depths with an oceanic network of floating sensors that would provide the raw data for analytics, including everything from sea state and weather to maritime traffic.

The Defense Advanced Research Agency’s “Ocean of Things” initiative would then transmit data collected by commercial sensors and crunched by new analytics tools via satellite to a cloud network. There it would be stored and prepped for real-time analysis, program officials said.

According to a recent DARPA contract solicitation, the data analytics portion of the Ocean of Things effort requires development of cloud-based software and data analytics tools to crunch data collected by low-cost floating sensor platforms. Among the data points to be gathered are dynamic displays of a float location, sensor status along with the processing of environmental data such as ocean temperature and sea state.

Those data would then be incorporated into meteorological and oceanographic models.

Other requirements include algorithm development for detecting, identifying and tracking ships. “We plan to create floating sensor networks that significantly expand maritime awareness at a fraction of the cost of current approaches,” said John Waterston, program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office.

The other goal is persistent coverage of wide swathes of the Earth’s oceans via thousands of intelligent floating platforms, the agency said. Along with machine learning and multi-sensor fusion techniques, the Ocean of Things would detect object and sensor motion used to track vessels, aircraft and even marine mammals.

The floating platforms would include a “mission sensor” packed with a hydrophone, camera, magnetometer and radio communications. Other components include a microphone, GPS, accelerometer and temperature gauges. Data would be transmitted via satellite to a cloud network for real-time analysis.

Along with high-resolution environmental data, the floating network could track passing vessels and predict their likely destination. The network could also provide early warning of unusual maritime activities.

Among the design considerations are managing a widely distributed signal processing platform, particularly determining how to balance processing between the cloud and the ocean-going sensor platform. Designers also must determine what data density thresholds a floating sensor platform can handle.

DARPA said it plans to conduct proof-of-concept demonstrations in a first phase. A second phase will test data analytics capabilities during actual sea trials.

The floating platforms also would have to comply with environmental regulations, and sensor platforms would scuttle themselves after about one year of use. Hence, the agency is stressing low-cost, disposable sensor platforms. According to reports, DARPA wants to build about 50,000 floating platforms with a unit cost of around $500.

The Ocean of Things would be linked to command datacenters via the 66-satellite Iridium constellation that includes dedicated Defense Department gateway. According to preliminary plans, sensor data would then be downlinked via DoD’s Enhanced Mobile Satellite Services gateway.

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