Sensors the only sensible answer for protecting the oceans

As we have all watched the tragic drama in the gulf unfold over the last two months, it occurs to me that information technology will inevitably play a much bigger role in the future of offshore drilling. Even absent catastrophic problems like we have seen with the Deepwater Horizon rig, there’s no doubt we need better mechanisms for dealing with monitoring offshore wells.

In fact, the handling of this crisis is giving us a glimpse of the future of safety in open water drilling, now that money is less of an object. Here are a couple of recent articles that caught my eye:

  • BP oil spill update: sensors measure spill — BP has installed sensors near the wellsite to improve their ability to estimate how much oil is spilling into the gulf. Some of the harshest criticisms have been around their inability to accurately determine how bad the situation is at “ground zero”. Sensors will help them more accurately understand oil flows and estimate what percentage they are capturing, as well as what degree of response is needed for the remainder.
  • ‘Gliding’ robots patrol Gulf oil spill — BP has deployed water drones to swim around the gulf and measure data such as temperature, salinity and organic materials. By providing a much more accurate and real-time picture of the oil plume, that data will aid the planning and execution of containment and cleanup efforts.

If you just consider the financial and political cost of a single event like this, it would surely be much cheaper to outfit the areas subject to offshore drilling with a permanent set of sensors that can report on ocean quality and contaminants minute by minute, instead of two months after the next spill. The nice thing about sensors is they work cheap — once deployed they continuously collect data without interruption. And that data can be mined for a wide range of uses beyond the petroleum industry, helping with hurricane predictions and general environmental study.

This is not at all far fetched. As the cost of sensors and networks have come down, there’s been an explosion in fixed and mobile sensors, and the systems that are used to process the data. Also, there are already large scale efforts to monitor the oceans for environmental changes over time.

Every sensor network drives two complimentary needs: to identify long term trends using after-the-fact data mining  and to identify situations of immediate concern by analyzing real-time event streams. Solace is currently deployed in large scale sensor networks monitoring seismic and temperature events as well as aiding in efforts to protect major US cities from security threats.

There are many more projects where sensors are generating massive amounts of data that’s fed into a federated information bus for distribution to real-time analytics and data warehouses. Applications related to RFID-based inventory tracking,   smart energy grids, video surveillance, transportation flow & scheduling, logistics tracking and more. Location is an important factor in every one of these use cases, because the “where” and the “who cares?” aspect of sensor exceptions are at least as important as the raw data captured. In the consumer space we’re just beginning to tap the most abundantly deployed sensors in the world: our GPS-enabled phones. There is a staggering amount of possibility sitting in your pocket right now that will continue to change how we live, work and play.

That this trend is a harbinger of the future world doesn’t exactly take a lot of vision, it’s already happening. When we look back in 15 years at the sensors in the physical world, it will be like taking inventory of the Internet today vs its fledgling days of 1995. People were aware of the Internet, mostly as an email gateway, but few could envision the scale of information growth and accessibility that would give rise so services like Google Earth, Slacker, Wikipedia and YouTube.

The gulf oil spill has put the government between a rock and a hard place when it comes to offshore drilling. From the public’s perspective, this is like another 3 mile island, yet they won’t volunteer to give up their cars or turn off their heaters in the winter, which means demand for oil will continue to increase. Proactive monitoring of the offshore drilling zones with ocean sensors may be the best approach to regulating the offshore drilling industry while providing increased protection for the areas affected.