NOAA explorer will lead to marine discoveries

The telepresence network being used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the Okeanos Explorer is linked to the five Exploration Command Centers established at universities, research institutes, and NOAA facilities on the East and West coasts. That number is likely to change as requests to join the network come in from other institutions, said Webb Pinner, the NOAA systems engineer assigned to Okeanos.

'We have to beat them off with a stick,' Pinner said.

For the time being, the telepresence program and the existing command centers will go through something of a shakedown cruise along with the newly commissioned ship. 'We really need to dial in the five we have online now' before adding new centers, he said.

The centers provide scientists with remote access to voice, video and data from the ship via a satellite link and Internet2. That setup gives researchers on board the Okeanos the flexibility to undertake a wide variety of missions and have access to scientific expertise on an ad hoc basis.

Although the Okeanos has only recently been refitted, the command centers have been around for a few years. The one at the NOAA Science Center in Silver Spring, Md., has been operational since 2005, and NOAA has used worked on other projects with the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration in Connecticut, which was founded by explorer Robert Ballard, discoverer of the wrecks of the Titanic, the Bismarck and John Kennedy's PT-109.

The system uses open protocols and commercial equipment so that once NOAA employees get accustomed to using it, they can open it to others. 'If other people want to play, they will be more than able to,' Pinner said.

Having remote access to data from a sophisticated exploration ship can be both frustrating and gratifying to scientists. Many oceanographers and researchers like working aboard ships and seeing discoveries first-hand from submersible vessels. But the control centers can give them access to projects they would not otherwise be able to join, and the near-real-time view from a high-definition camera on a 42-inch plasma screen beats squinting through a 12-inch Plexiglas porthole.

'This system is actually superior to a lot of vehicles that are in the field,' Pinner said.

Although the remotely operated vehicle on Okeanos has high-definition cameras, the telepresence system does not provide high-definition video. But as new video encoders become available, officials plan to upgrade the ship to enable it to multicast high-definition video to shore, said Todd Pearce, information technology administrator at the NOAA Science Center. The ship will have a 20 megabits/sec satellite link available and will be able to send high-definition signals at 8 megabits/sec via two of its three video channels.

NOAA officials also plan to open one-way control centers for educational facilities to access data from Okeanos and will make video from the ship available online.

Because Okeanos' missions will be funded by NOAA and grants to scientists, the data produced will be public information rather than proprietary to researchers.

'The new model is to make the data obtained from Okeanos available to as many people as possible,' NOAA spokesman Fred Gorell said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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