How Cloud-based computing is transforming the subsea survey industry

Mapping in the cloud

Digitalisation has revolutionised the world, and hydrographic survey techniques are no exception. While advances in mechanical design have enabled the survey of increasingly remote locations, electronics and digital processing techniques have dramatically increased resolution. Where once a few spot soundings were considered enough to make a chart, today’s survey vessels generate vast amounts of data to give unprecedented detail.

Detail is good, but data in these quantities needs careful management if it is not to become overwhelming. Modern sounders, such as KONGSBERG’s EM range, can produce data at a rate of more than 1Gb per minute – too much to economically transmit ashore in real time, and impractical to store locally in raw form. Fortunately, real-time processing can dramatically reduce the burden for transmission or storage.

Although most surveys are carefully planned, it’s of great benefit to be able to analyse the data while the equipment is at sea, enabling unusual results to be verified and survey gaps to be revisited. As the market leader in subsea survey equipment, it’s not surprising to find that KONGSBERG have a Cloud solution for storing and sharing survey data. Called Mapping Cloud, it is underpinned by Kognifai, which is Kongsberg Digital’s solution for an open, cloud-based environment.

The purpose of Kognifai, which is based on Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform, is to support collaboration and knowledge-sharing between and within organisations, and to assist academia and the public in developing a broader understanding of the world around us. A good example of how Kognifai and Mapping Cloud are already facilitating this is the Frisk Oslofjord project.

Kognifai is open to anyone with an interest in the industry, and its standard platform makes it easy for developers to create applications. In addition, Kongsberg Digital offer several Software Development Kits (SDKs) to assist in application development. These contain edge connectors, 3D tools, application framework support, authentication and authorisation systems, dashboard widgets, database solutions, routeing and queue support features.

As an open platform, the range of applications supported by Kognifai is truly diverse. Recent organisations to join Kognifai include the UK Met Office, Finnish maritime communications technology developer KNL Networks and cyber-security experts KPMG. KONGSBERG will integrate all its proprietary software (e.g. Mapping Cloud, Vessel Insight) into Kognifai in the near future.

See all available applications in Kognifai

The scope for data generation and, more importantly, sharing and collaboration on such a platform is immense. KONGSBERG currently has a footprint on more than 30,000 ships; as an example, the company’s Division for Vessel and Fleet Performance has more than 1,000 ships from Europe, Asia and the USA using Kognifai, making it possible for ship owners to monitor the status of their assets from any web browser in any location.

The Cloud also offers almost infinite capacity for storage. Kognifai allows large data sets to be stored, which remain exclusive to the user unless they grant access to others. This can be done on an individual or group basis and on a permanent or time-limited basis. If they are prepared to grant more general access, large datasets facilitate machine learning, allowing Kognifai to generate additional future value for its users.

Mapping Cloud is a joint concept developed by Kongsberg Digital and Kongsberg Maritime’s Subsea business. Capable of accepting input from a range of different sources including cameras, multibeam echosounders and temperature sensors, it is built on Kognifai and aimed squarely at the survey industry. The first application to be released within Mapping Cloud is Storage, which as its name suggests is a storage solution, designed with an interface similar to other PC-based file managers to make it intuitive to use. However, there are a few differences which tailor its functionality for the data-intense, collaborative world of modern hydrography.

The first two points, data upload and data sharing, are the keys to why a Cloud solution makes sense for survey applications. The ability to automatically gather and aggregate data from diverse sources in a single, globally accessible location facilitates expert input from all over the world.mapping cloud2.png

Advanced sonar systems, such as KONGSBERG’s EM sounders, can perform significant real-time processing, thus limiting the amount of data it is necessary to store or transmit. The amount and type of processing carried out is configurable, and Mapping Cloud facilitates doing so remotely.

This allows the operator to ensure that only necessary data is uploaded to Mapping Cloud Storage, and to tailor the system to the available communication bandwidth. This becomes particularly valuable when Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) are used. A single mother ship can have control of a fleet of these craft, which allows large areas to be surveyed by a small but expert team, in areas which might otherwise be inaccessible. USVs are often also used in support of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), with the potential to extend survey depths up to 6,000m.

A local wireless system such as KONGSBERG Maritime Broadband Radio (MBR) may be used to intensively transfer data between vessels in the fleet. It can then be processed further on the mother ship before upload to Mapping Cloud via a shore link, which is likely to be higher bandwidth and less expensive than satcom. If an MBR network is established however, there will be no ‘airtime costs’ for uploading data to the Cloud.

Once the data is in the Cloud, the end user for the survey can monitor the progress and quality of the survey, allowing immediate feedback. This ensures customer satisfaction and reduces latency, with a consequent improvement in efficiency.

Data is rarely useful without the software to process it, and Kognifai applications have not yet been developed to deal with every use case. As Mapping Cloud becomes more widely used, they will doubtless become available, but for now Kognifai has an answer: Virtual Machines.

A Virtual Machine (VM) is an operating system, such as Windows 10, operating within another operating system. Used locally they are a great way to run legacy software, for example by running a Windows XP VM within Windows 10. But used over the internet, VMs are also a means of providing access to a potentially much more powerful machine and software tools than available locally. Kognifai can launch a VM within a browser window, so that data can be analysed and examined using software built on any platform, viewed from any platform – even a tablet or phone.

Survey is not the only area in which Mapping Cloud is set to revolutionise data-intense maritime applications. In a recent project between KONGSBERG, iSURVEY and Earth Analytics, real-time information from tugs and an oil rig was sent to Mapping Cloud, processed and passed to Google Chrome to be monitored on shore. The tracks from the tugs clearly show how they move to place the rig’s anchors in the correct locations.

Forthcoming development in Mapping Cloud is expected to make it applicable to a wider range of scenarios, including enhanced integration with ESRI’s Cloud mapping solutions, such as ArcGIS. Developments are likely to include standard interfaces and shared data types such as depth, sidescan, processed water column measurements, terrain models and real-time data.

Mapping Cloud is in its infancy, but it is already signposting the distributed, collaborative nature of the surveys of the future. As new applications are developed and new partners begin to use the platform, it will become more powerful and applicable to a broader range of maritime scenarios. Just as Cloud computing has revolutionised the way businesses work and collaborate across the globe, tools such as Mapping Cloud will be key to the hydrographic techniques of the future.