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IBM has been helping explore the depths and vitality of our oceans for decades — in hope of healing both the planet and humanity
The Mayflower autonomous ship at sea, viewed from above

IBM’s role in space exploration has been well-documented over the years. The company played a formative role in the success of NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle missions. But it has likewise contributed to important exploration efforts here on Earth — especially when it comes to understanding the mysteries of our oceans.

It has often been said that we know more about the surface of the moon and Mars than we do about the sea floor. More than 70% of our planet is covered by water, but up to 80% of it remains unexplored. Changing this dynamic — by hastening the efforts to chart the ocean’s conditions and life-forms — could very well change the world. The role that our oceans play in affecting weather patterns and extreme events becomes more apparent. The deepest reaches harbor extraordinary life forms that have the potential to shed light on how to survive in extreme conditions and reveal secrets to fighting disease.

IBM has been providing expertise and equipment to further such causes for decades. It has worked in conjunction with some of the world’s most accomplished explorers, contributed equipment and software to analyze harsh environments, and even embarked on an ambitious project to automate ocean research via a custom-built, self-driving seafaring vessel.

The Conshelf experiments

IBM embarked on its earliest ocean-exploration efforts even before it collaborated with NASA on the Mercury missions. In the 1950s, the company provided calculators to prepare navigational charts and analyze marine data. In 1965, it offered a far more robust suite of machinery for the landmark Conshelf project, led by legendary French explorer Jacques Cousteau, in which six oceanauts occupied a habitat 100 meters below the Mediterranean Sea for three weeks. It was the longest period humans had ever lived at that depth.

The only contact Cousteau and his team had with other humans was enabled by the IBM 1050 Data Communications System, one of the earliest teleprocessing computer terminals, which relayed text to 150 technicians on board a dozen ships near Monaco. The oceanauts breathed a helium-oxygen mix while simulating work that could potentially be done on offshore oil wells. The IBM 1050 continuously fed data to an IBM 1620 computer in a mainland data center for real-time analysis and future study.

Conshelf demonstrated how technology could aid humans in underwater exploration and fostered a broad appreciation for the mysteries of the ocean. Through documentary films and TV programs, it raised awareness of the potential of further exploration and helped draw attention to ocean pollution and the importance of ocean conservation.

Conshelf demonstrated how technology could aid humans in underwater exploration
Seafaring with supercomputers

In the late 1960s, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California used IBM 1800 computers on research vessels and the IBM System/360 Model 50 to simulate the effects of dumping incinerated waste into the sea. The National Oceanographic Data Center also used System/360 to maintain 85% of the world’s ocean data at the time. Beginning in 2002, the Naval Oceanographic Office used an IBM eServer pSeries 690–based supercomputer, named Blue Ocean, to help scientists create a highly detailed model of ocean waves, currents and temperatures.

In 2011, IBM collaborated with the University of Aberdeen’s Marine Biodiscovery Centre in Scotland, where scientists focused on the potential of ocean organisms to help develop medicines to fight cancer, infection and parasitic diseases. The initiative identified a mystery chemical compound produced by a bacteria in the deepest known place on Earth — the Mariana Trench, more than 35,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The bacteria, Dermacoccus abyssi, produced a compound that the team could not identify, and so IBM researchers used a technique called atomic force microscopy and density functional theory calculations to successfully pinpoint the compound.

The process of identifying an unknown compound can typically take weeks or months, but this was completed in just a few days. Looking forward, scientists can potentially reduce the time it takes to identify other compounds. This could accelerate the development of medicines, improve the way we manage conservation and public safety, and lead to scientific breakthroughs in other areas of our lives.

The Mayflower autonomous ship

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s transatlantic voyage from England to the US, IBM announced in 2021 an ambitious effort to repeat the journey with the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) — this time without any people onboard. The plan was to use AI models to make accurate navigation decisions while delivering live data to inform policies for climate change and marine conservation. 

A typical ocean research expedition involves as many as 100 scientists and lasts about six weeks. Subtract traveling time and the complexities of navigating weather and rough seas, and that leaves only about a week for actual research. IBM built MAS to help change this dynamic. A solar-powered vessel, it travels independently to remote and dangerous regions. Researchers back on land download live data and images synced to the cloud, such as whale songs or ocean chemistry — detected by an “electronic tongue” called Hypertaste. “With AI-powered sensors onboard, scientists can access more meaningful insights at greater speed,” said IBM researcher Rosie Lickorish, who holds a master’s degree in oceanography. “The cost of data for our experts is low, in time as well as money.”

The AI Captain at the helm of MAS uses a vision-and-radar system, which includes six AI-powered cameras, 30 onboard sensors and 15 edge devices, for precise navigation. The system scans the ocean and uses an operational decision manager (ODM) to avoid collisions. A decision-optimization engine recommends next best actions, and a “watchdog” system detects and fixes problems. Rules-based decision logics in the ODM validate and correct the AI Captain’s actions, and a log tracks exactly which initial conditions were fed into ODM, which makes debugging and analyzing the AI Captain’s behaviors vastly easier than the “black box” AI systems commonly used today. “ODM keeps the AI Captain honest and obeying the ‘rules of the road’,” said Andy Stanford-Clark, IBM Distinguished Engineer and IBM Technical Lead for MAS.

After a 3,500-mile journey over 40 days, MAS successfully arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and IBM declared the mission complete — although data from the journey will undoubtedly continue serving researchers for years to come.

The MAS project garnered considerable attention from the media, generating coverage in the likes of Fortune, Smithsonian magazine, and The Wall Street Journal, and by the BBC. Which shouldn’t be surprising. The wonders and mysteries of the water are alluring — as is a good ocean adventure story.

With AI-powered sensors onboard, scientists can access more meaningful insights at greater speed Rosie Lickorish IBM researcher
MAS ocean research expedition 6 AI-powered cameras 30 onboard sensors 15 edge devices 40 days 3,500 miles
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