DARPA floats idea of persistent situational awareness at sea

Thousands of small, low-cost floats could form a distributed sensor network under a new program at DARPA that aims to boost situational awareness over large areas of ocean.


The goal of DARPA’s (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Ocean of Things program is to increase maritime awareness in a cost-effective way, said John Waterston, program manager in DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office (STO).

Each smart float would contain a suite of commercially available sensors to collect environmental data – such as ocean temperature, sea state, and location – plus activity data about commercial vessels, aircraft, and potentially maritime mammals moving through the area. The floats would transmit data periodically via satellite to a cloud network for storage and real-time analysis.

“It would be cost-prohibitive to use existing platforms to continuously monitor vast regions of the ocean,” said Waterston. “By coupling powerful analytical tools with commercial sensor technology, we plan to create floating sensor networks that significantly expand maritime awareness at a fraction of the cost of current approaches.”

According to DARPA, the technical challenge for Ocean of Things lies in the areas of float development and data analytics.

Under float development, so-called proposers must design an intelligent float to house a passive sensor suite that can survive in harsh maritime environments. Each float would report information from its surroundings for at least one year before safely scuttling itself in the deep ocean.

The floats will be required to be made of environmentally safe materials, pose no danger to vessels, and comply with all federal laws, regulations, and executive orders related to protection of marine life.

The data analytics portion of the Ocean of Things program will require proposers to develop cloud-based software and analytic techniques to process the floats’ reported data. This effort includes dynamic display of float locations, health, and mission performance; processing of environmental data for oceanographic and meteorological models; developing algorithms to automatically detect, track, and identify nearby vessels; and identification of new indicators of maritime activity.

A Proposers Day is scheduled for January 4, 2018, in Arlington, Virginia.