Webcasting Exploration

snapper_over_relic_shoreline_sm.jpgNational Geographic explorer-in-residence Dr. Robert Ballard led a team of scientists to explore the “twilight zone” near 100m depth around the Flower Garden Banks region in the Gulf of Mexico last week. Every cabin, van, and workspace on the support vessel SSV Carolyn Chouest seemed to be wired for communication to the shore via dedicated satellite and microwave feeds. The entire Secrets of the Gulf (SOG) expedition was broadcast live over the web through an emerging exploration technology Ballard calls telepresence.

Ballard coined the term telepresence to describe part of his mission at the Institute for Exploration (IFE) . The Foundation’s mission is to inspire people everywhere to care about and protect our oceans by exploring and sharing their biological, ecological and cultural treasures. Ballard spent 30 years in the US Navy before founding IFE. You can read his biography here. Now the vision has become real. Last week was the first public demonstration of the telepresence technology with Bob broadcasting from the IFE console in Mystic, CT.

The live feed from the Gulf deep waters was patchy in the first days, but communication improved as the expedition progressed. If you followed along at either of the two hosting websites you could see mud volcanoes, brine seeps, ancient shorelines, deep coral heads, schools of jacks, and lots of gorgonians. The daytime broadcasts were frequent and flawless. After hours, the imagery could be spectacular and/or monotonous. So it goes in the deep. Beats Mars, anyway.

sea_whips.jpg Audio was often funny because pilots and crew manned the mikes. One day I woke up to Jimmy Cliff’s “Bright Sunny Day” playing from the laptop on the mantle in my living room, with a tow sled on-deck, ready to go. Clearly, life is about to become very interesting for the deep ocean explorers everywhere. New exploration vessels will be equipped with this technology in coming years.

I was lucky enough to participate in the research design for the biological component of the mission with Flower Garden Banks Sanctuary staff. The biological transects will add data to my dissertation work on deep gorgonians on the banks in the Gulf of Mexico. The Flower Gardens are some of the most intensely explored (and healthiest) coral reefs in the Western Atlantic. We don’t know much about deep water species in the FGB sanctuary. We identified 20 deep coral species so far, and a few deep “hotspots” for gorgonians, but like most tropical reef systems around the world, everything deeper than 80 meters is still a mystery.

Ballard’s Chief scientist Dr. Dwight Coleman from University of Rhode Island (URI) hypothesizes that these reefs were exposed 15,000 years ago during the time of lower sea level, and that the underlying salt structure may have been an important resource to humans and animals. The low sea level stand was about 100m, so that’s where they focused research effort. As I understand it, the oldest human fossils on record are only about 10,000 years old. There’s precedent for mastodon fossils and freshwater snails on submerged reefs off South Texas, so new discoveries of human occupation at 100m would be a coup de grace for archeologists.

SOG broadcast live from the ship four to five times a day, each and every day. It was Ballard’s first expedition ashore, and it was an amazing accomplishment. You could watch in the morning, in the middle of the night, between classes, after work, during work, during meals, on the phone, alone and in groups. It was exhilarating and …exhausting. Seriously, folks. Telepresence can take a toll on you.

mud_volcano_sm.jpg I was one of (at least) 30 people monitoring this expedition through a modified “command center”. Many participated through true command centers at NOAA headquarters in Silver Spring and Seattle, at IFE, at URI. These folks watched streaming HDTV over Internet 2. Here at Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, the IT department commandeered a public auditorium equipped with Internet 2 to share streaming large format video with nearly 250 people, including local print and news media. People were up at all hours of the night sending emails, tweaking knobs, and taking notes. It was hard to peel away, really. But when you did it was good. Like Ballard, I stepped out of the office to enjoy dinner at home with my wife and kids. Then I went back to work tracking the expedition.

This is where telepresence takes its toll. Given, it’s the future of exploration. We know this. But I have to describe the sullen feeling that comes over you when a nuclear submarine is standing by, ready to run a transect for your biology team, and your watch alarm rings to tell you its time for your seminar class in Natural Systems Modeling. Arggh. I mean, who wants to discuss infection rates for avian flu when a live mud volcano is belching methane bubbles on your desktop, or a school of amberjacks is hunting in the lights of the tow sled at 100m depth? If my modeling professor wasn’t such a nutty inspiration, I would have been very sorely disappointed by Earthly responsibilities well into the next day.

The ironic thing about all this deep ocean connectivity is that remote exploration won’t let you disconnect from your shore-based obligations. You still have to go to class, and write your papers, answer phone calls, and fill the refrigerator. You have to multitask. It’s the same with telecommuting, pagers, and cell phones. The modern dilemma is to escape technology. Until now, such things were usually absent at sea. Telepresence is a terrific opportunity for explorers everywhere, and it’s the way of the future, but nothing will ever replace the feeling of being there on the boat, cut off from the world, putting gear in the water, and recording new data. That’s old school.

In future expeditions, science will need to balance carefully with broadcast media opportunities. Research teams will inevitably be forced to deal with the increased demands of broadcast technology. Telepresence will become a secondary mission. The connectivity will eat up research time, and require additional support staff. Bunks on the boat will need to be sacrificed. Salty dogs will need to watch their words. New protocols will be necessary. All these things are manageable, of course, but projects will need to grow. The benefits of webcasting will outweigh the costs, but not all ocean research will adapt to the new paradigm.

SOG was able to broadcast their mission AND collect lots of scientific data because 1) the NR1 submarine operated independently, 2) the research plan was multidisciplinary, 3) the leadership was strong, 4) people were trained and experienced in the technology, and 5) the support staff was present and available on land and sea. If you’re savvy with technology, this could be your future! It’s a new dimension in exploration, and a new career opportunity.

If you’re wondering, … yes, I did get to meet and shake the hand of Dr. Bob Ballard, the man who discovered the Titanic. He is a powerful presence and a great, inspiring speaker. His vision is clear. Everyone on his crew was kind and capable. The country is lucky to have their leadership. Graduate students like me will be lucky to have several days of HD video heading their way for dissertation research. Thank you Dr. Ballard, NOAA, and Flower Garden Banks! This was a wonderful experience. Now I am going to sleep for three days.

If you bloggers have any thoughts about telepresence that you would like to share, please send them in to me and Craig. We will forward them to Drs. Dwight Coleman and Bob Ballard. I am sure they would be pleased to hear from our readers.