STF Mag Feature: Evolving SubSea Technologies Impacting Submarine Cables

As published in the September Issue of SubTel Forum Magazine

September 19, 2022
By Stephen Nielsen

Within the Submarine Cable Industry, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the first significant technology that comes to mind is the cable. Heck, it’s in the name. Lower latency, higher fibre pairs, zero attenuation: these are the technology dreams of the industry. But what about all the other subsea technologies that are groundbreaking and going into implementation all over the world?

Companies in many fields are developing new technologies that are currently or will have significant influence over the future of the Submarine Cable Industry and all subsea industries.

SEA-KIT International’s Uncrewed Surface Vessel (USV) Maxlimer was recently used to complete an initial survey of Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha’apai, a submarine volcano in the South Pacific. In other areas, cable segments from Tampnet are being used as part of a seismic monitoring system, assisting in early earthquake warnings.

“The market for subsea technologies appears to be expanding, and that growth is expected to continue in the next 5 years,” said a representative of Makai Ocean Engineering. “We believe there will be significant emphasis in automation and clean energy within the coming years.”

To learn more about the current climate and expected development of this alternative side of the industry, Submarine Technologies Forum reached out to companies spearheading these developments to get a more personal take on where the industry and technology is, and where it’s going.

For this article, we heard from Tampnet and Makai Ocean Engineering. We asked a batch of questions regarding their company, and where they believe the industry is heading.

Tampnet is a company founded in 2001 in Stavanger, Norway, according to the company website. It runs “the world’s largest offshore high capacity communication network in the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, serving customers within oil & gas, wind energy, maritime and carrier sectors with first class telecommunications.”

Alternately, Makai Ocean Engineering (Makai) is a technology company founded in 1973 on the Makai Research Pier in Waimanalo, Hawaii. “Our clients have referred to us as a “think tank” for ocean-related problems, owing to our reputation for being innovative, fast, and thorough in our designs.”

Makai provides practical solutions and technologies to solve real world challenges. Makai provides ocean engineering a software solutions. “Our subsea cable software has been used on several record breaking projects,” said Makai in the Q&A. “The most recent memorable achievement is that our subsea cable software, MakaiLay, is now used by over 90% of the subsea telecom cable installation fleet.”

Companies in the Ocean Technology business will have wide ranging types of projects, including unique survey projects, unmanned drones exploring dangerous areas, or many other projects. When asked about some of their most memorable application of their technology in a project, both companies recalled very different, but fascinating events.

Tampnet related a time that their technology came through in a pinch during a storm:

“The most memorable moment was in 2013, when our first commercial customer on our 4G/LTE network had to prematurely cut across from their legacy VSAT satellite connection to shore to our new 4G/LTE system that was just being commissioned onboard. This happened during a very strong storm, with 23m wave height in the North Sea causing their satellite antenna to get damaged and misaligned to the degree that they lost communications.

“The consequence was that in the middle of this storm the offshore asset went from a very poor quality VSAT with just a few Mbps and more than 500ms delay on the link to shore, to an extremely stable 30Mbps connection with less than 40ms delay carried through our 4G and subsea fibre network. The crew was blown away and could not understand why they all of a sudden had a blazing fast and rock-solid connection to shore in the middle of one of the worst storms in the history of their operations in the North Sea!

Makai, on the other hand, shared a time where their application of a new energy technology created a pioneering step in green energy: “In 2015 Makai made history by connecting our pilot OTEC plant to the U.S. grid, marking the first time baseload renewable energy from OTEC fed the U.S. electrical grid. This was a momentous achievement that proved that OTEC is a viable energy source for portions of the U.S.

“Makai has also long been a proponent and leader for marine renewable energy technologies like Seawater Air Conditioning (SWAC) and Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC). Makai will continue to advance these technologies globally to meet renewable energy goals.”

Possibly because of the two companies’ very different focuses, when asked where they see their industry in the next five years, their answers were equally different.

According to Makai, they believe that there will be significant focus on automation and on green energy. In the same vein, when asked about the growing relevance of sustainability in the industry, the Makai representative answered, “Makai is also developing new tools and technologies to support the greater offshore renewable energy markets with a near term focus on offshore wind. Makai’s technologies will help advance and support the growing offshore wind market, with tools to help in the planning and hardware technologies to reduce the cost of installation.”

When answering the same question, the Tampnet representative said, “The basics of subsea technology will remain the same, with submarine fibre optic cables carrying the vast majority of the world´s communications.” They added, however, that the speed of technology’s development and evolving capabilities of transmission technology connected to cable systems could possible capacity and speed “is increasing at a mind-blowing speed.”

“Today, a single strand of fibre can carry many terabits of data per second. This evolution is likely to continue. In addition to this, we are seeing new uses for our subsea cables, where the cable or fibre cores inside of it is being used for new scientific purposes,” said Tampnet.

As an example, they mention the use of cables fitted with monitoring equipment for seismic and earthquake detection. “Another application is to use the cable to monitor for potential hazards, protecting the cable itself.,” They add.  “By placing acoustic sensing equipment on fibre cores, the fibres behave as very long microphones, picking up noise along the cable. This can be used to detect excavators on land, and fishing trawlers dragging on the seabed, alerting the cable owner of any potential dangers to the cable’s integrity.”

Input from companies like this gives us a unique look into the developing world of ocean technology and its many facets. While there may not always be direct overlap between some technologies and the large cable systems, there is not denying the potential benefit new developments could have down the line on the overall industry. There may come a time where the cable infrastructure crisscrossing the globe serves several purposes beyond just data transmission.

About the Author

Stephen Nielsen is Editor at Submarine Telecoms Forum and possesses more than 10 years’ experience in examining submarine cable systems. He has previously supported blogging and streaming various PTC and SubOptic conferences. He is also a 6th Grade Teacher and a former Finalist for the Society of Professional Journalism’s Mark of Excellence Award.

He was previously employed by Winchester Star newspaper and Capital News Services and is an American Citizen based in Sterling, Virginia USA.

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