Darryl Newborough, Technical Director, Sonardyne

Being in the middle of a high-profile, technology-driven scientific mission in some of the least explored areas of the world’s oceans isn’t a chance you get very often.

When I was offered the chance, earlier this year, to be part of the Nekton Deep Ocean Research Institute’s First Descent expedition off the Seychelles, I jumped at it. This was not only a great chance to be involved in a ground-breaking project, but also a chance to show the world just what our BlueComm technology could do.

That it wasn’t your average project was clear from the start, but just how different came into sharp focus when, at the end of February, I found myself aboard the Ocean Zephyr research vessel, in the Seychelles, setting up our BlueComm system surrounded by international television crews from Associated Press and Sky News/Sky Atlantic. That’s when it really did hit home how big this project is. 

Alongside its scientific mission, Nekton’s goal was to achieve a world first – live broadcast from two-manned submersibles as they explore the Indian Ocean.

Wirelessly streaming video data to the surface with optical communications technology has been done before and we’ve been supplying BlueComm systems to clients for applications from underwater vehicle control to data harvesting, since acquiring the technology rights seven years ago. What’s new with this project is streaming to the vessel and from there broadcasting live across the globe, enabling people at home – or anywhere with access to the internet – to join the scientists live in their submersibles.

What’s also new with this mission is that we’ve had to adapt the system so that two sets of BlueComms, on Nekton’s two submersibles, can stream through the water without interfering with each other’s signals. 

We know this technology works, but with any first, it’s always a bit nerve wracking. How far will the transmission go? What are the exact parameters at this site? Ideally, you would run through trials to test the full operational envelope, testing different depths, before doing the live broadcast, but, beyond a simple set of trials, we simply didn’t have time to go into depth before the Ocean Zehpyr had to ship out and I had to head home.

On top of that, set-up wasn’t the usual fairly straight forward engineer and client representative scenario. There were many many people involved. There was the submarine team, the ROV team, the team running the depressor (what we call the BlueComm receiver when deployed on a cable from the vessel), the Nekton team – directors and logistics – and then the scientists. Each team has its own needs and priorities and they’re all trying to get ready for mobilisation. On top of that, there were three to four film crews recording every moment, every impromptu back-deck discussion, and the mobilisation, asking questions about how it will work and how confident I was that it would work – making it all the more challenging.

But, the oceans gods were on our side. On Saturday, we got the two systems communicating – we were all happy. Then, on Tuesday this week, international news agency Associated Press announced that they had, using our subsea optical communications technology – BlueComm – achieved a world first, by broadcasting live to the globe from one of its two underwater untethered submersibles. Read more from them here.

Even though I was back at my desk in Hampshire by then, I was still part of the activity. Thanks to today’s communications technologies I was communicating with the engineers and head of technology for Sky on the Ocean Zephyr via WhatsApp, while being connected to their desktops using desktop-sharing software, all while also watching the live broadcast on YouTube. It was a great milestone to achieve.

But, we’re now getting reading for the next challenge this coming week: broadcasting from both of the submersibles in the water simultaneously using the dual frequency signals, which will be yet another world first. As with all “firsts”, and not least with a complex technology like BlueComm, there are wrinkles to iron out. During the pre-mobilisation trials we found that we were getting spectrum interference, between the two BlueComm systems in the water. This could impact the dual broadcast and, given that this is a critical part of the mission, and key to the Sky News and Sky Atlantic teams’ live broadcasts, starting next week, to help promote and aid understanding of these environments, we had to fix it.

Thankfully, we have fantastic support from Norm Farr and the team at Lumasys, the original pioneers of BlueComm. To stop the spectrum interference, we needed a filter, similar to one you would fit on to your camera, which would then need integrating into an emitter. Norman rallied his team, made a filter, which was then express-shipped to the UK – all within just two days – so that we could build it into a new emitter fast enough for a member of the Sky News team to take it out to the Seychelles. Given that there is limited flights to the remote island where the vessel is now, timing was critical.

Norm, Jon, Chris, Leo-Paull and the Lumasys team were superb. The modification is key to achieving the dual broadcast. The Lumasys team also modified the software we use for BlueComm to make it more useable to the crew, so hat’s off to them for going above and beyond.

It’s all worth the effort. You don’t often get chance to work on a ground-breaking scientific project that’s also achieving a world first in broadcasting using your technology.

Thanks to missions like this, and other ground-breaking television programmes, the impact we’re having on the world’s oceans is now very much in the public domain, with plastics in the ocean being at the front of that. The world is literally now switched on – via BlueComm – to the impact we’re having and what we can do about it.