A future-friendly framework for seabed mapping

Published: January 10, 2022

We propose establishing areas of importance to innovation and development of technology, where new technology can be verified and calibrated against ruling standards.

Ocean autonomy is a relatively new field, and Norway is at the forefront of its technology development. Therefore, the relationship between regulatory frameworks and technological developments must be close to ensure that Norway maintains its position in the field. The Norwegian Directorate of Maritime Affairs’ approach to the development of autonomous ships and changes in laws and regulations is an excellent example to follow.

In late 2021, the Norwegian Ministry of Defense sent out a consultation note on data acquisition and information related to seabed mapping.  To ensure a working framework for seabed mapping, we have submitted these proposals:

0-30 meters depth
We agree with the proposed declassification of data down to 30 meters. At the same time, we hope that the system and process related to the duty to report will be so simple and flexible that it will not be an obstacle.

30+ meters depth
We have a great understanding that particular sea and coastal areas must be subject to restrictions concerning national security, among other things. Nevertheless, the proposed classifications and limitations will present a significant obstacle to research and development. At the same time, it criminalizes many actors, partly due to the quality of technical equipment.

Highly detailed seabed mapping is of great importance to many civilian operations, e.g., construction, environmental mapping related to city developments, establishment and operation of aquaculture installations, etc. At a general level, there is also a broad understanding that better knowledge of the sea is crucial for economic development and for securing the environment and climate.

Technology and opportunities today
Today’s technology is of such high quality and detail that even using «consumer equipment» will exceed the restrictions on depth and resolution described in the consultation note.

  • Echosounder: As mentioned in the consultation note and several of the responses, today’s echo sounders and sonars, both single beam and multi-beam, are of such a quality that they will cross the limits of 25×25 meter resolution deeper than 30 meters. The consequences are that both recreational boats and the fishing fleet will be criminalized.
  • ROV and video images: «Simple video images of the seabed will as a general rule still not be used to reconstruct the bottom topography, and will therefore not be covered by the restrictions…». With today’s equipment, it will be easy to use video or still images from ROVs or other underwater equipment to reconstruct the bottom topography up to a very high degree of detail using, for example, photogrammetry. Easily accessible hobby equipment and free software can achieve this.
  • Autonomous ships: Depth data is essential for the further development of autonomous ships, e.g., as part of the redundancy of the navigation system. “Developers of autonomous technology and automated solutions must, in any case, be aware of the ban on the development of such technology” (p. 11 in the consultation note). The proposal as it stands now will thus be an obstacle to the further development of Norwegian ocean technology and its use in Norway’s waters. Not only for autonomous ships but also with improving navigation systems and situational awareness in general. Limiting maritime innovation and development opportunities in such a way would be very unfortunate for technology developers and research, innovation actors, and end-users. In addition, Norwegian actors will have a much more limited framework than others. This will consequentially result in Norway losing its leading position.

Our proposal
We believe it to be more appropriate to apply limits on selected areas, such as areas of particular importance to the nation’s security. This will also simplify both management and enforcement of the regulations by establishing smaller and clearly defined areas. The chance that recreational boats unknowingly break the law by using available equipment, such as echo sounders and other navigation and communication equipment, will be significantly reduced.

If this is not feasible, areas specifically used for research and development should be opened up. For example, Trondheimsfjorden is an area that is used extensively for research and development activities. Trondheimsfjorden was even regulated as a test site for autonomous ships back in 2016. Whole or large parts of Trondheimsfjorden should be declassified to ensure good research and development conditions and avoid criminalizing activities that contribute to new knowledge and technology.

Cross-party initiatives are working for increased investment in ocean space for economic growth and the implementation of the green shift. Thus, it is a crossroads that this proposal blocks the same initiatives by limiting the generation of new knowledge about the very same ocean space.

The consequences of this will be many; as previously mentioned, we as a nation will soon be left behind. We will reduce our competitiveness in research and development and weaken our knowledge base on sustainable sea management. Instead of limiting access and data acquisition, we need to make the data that can be shared readily available.

Therefore, we propose establishing areas of importance to innovation and development of technology, where new technology can be verified and calibrated against ruling standards. Establishing such sites will also ensure better data quality “crowdsourced” from units installed on recreational and commercial vessels. 

Think about the innovation and rapid development made possible when land map data became available. Given the lack of current ocean space data, it is natural to believe that the potential is tremendous by making it available. 

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