Tag Archives: undersea GPS

Who Owns the Real Information System

In January 2022, the head of the UK’s armed forces has warned that Russia submarine activity is threatening underwater cables that are crucial to communication systems around the world. Admiral Sir Tony Radakin said undersea cables that transmit internet data are ‘the world’s real information system,’ and added that any attempt to damage then could be considered an act of war.

The internet seems like a post- physical environment where things like viral posts, virtual goods and metaverse concerts just sort of happen. But creating that illusion requires a truly gargantuan—and quickly-growing—web of physical connections. Fiber-optic cable, which carries 95% of the world’s international internet traffic, links up pretty much all of the world’s data centers…

Where those fiber-optic connections link up countries across the oceans, they consist almost entirely of cables running underwater—some 1.3 million kilometers (or more than 800,000 miles) of bundled glass threads that make up the actual, physical international internet. And until recently, the overwhelming majority of the undersea fiber-optic cable being installed was controlled and used by telecommunications companies and governments. Today, that’s no longer the case.

In less than a decade, four tech giants— Microsoft, Google parent Alphabet, Meta (formerly Facebook ) and Amazon —have become by far the dominant users of undersea-cable capacity. Before 2012, the share of the world’s undersea fiber-optic capacity being used by those companies was less than 10%. Today, that figure is about 66%.  In the next three years, they are on track to become primary financiers and owners of the web of undersea internet cables connecting the richest and most bandwidth-hungry countries on the shores of both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

By 2024, the four are projected to collectively have an ownership stake in more than 30 long-distance undersea cables, each up to thousands of miles long, connecting every continent on the globe save Antarctica. In 2010, these companies had an ownership stake in only one such cable—the Unity cable partly owned by Google, connecting Japan and the U.S. Traditional telecom companies have responded with suspicion and even hostility to tech companies’ increasingly rapacious demand for the world’s bandwidth. Industry analysts have raised concerns about whether we want the world’s most powerful providers of internet services and marketplaces to also own the infrastructure on which they are all delivered. This concern is understandable. Imagine if Amazon owned the roads on which it delivers packages.

But the involvement of these companies in the cable-laying industry also has driven down the cost of transmitting data across oceans for everyone, even their competitors….Undersea cables can cost hundreds of millions of dollars each. Installing and maintaining them requires a small fleet of ships, from surveying vessels to specialized cable-laying ships that deploy all manner of rugged undersea technology to bury cables beneath the seabed. At times they must lay the relatively fragile cable—at some points as thin as a garden hose—at depths of up to 4 miles.

All of this must be done while maintaining the right amount of tension in the cables, and avoiding hazards as varied as undersea mountains, oil-and-gas pipelines, high-voltage transmission lines for offshore wind farms, and even shipwrecks and unexploded bombs…In the past, trans-oceanic cable-laying often required the resources of governments and their national telecom companies. That’s all but pocket change to today’s tech titans. Combined, Microsoft, Alphabet, Meta and Amazon poured more than $90 billion into capital expenditures in 2020 alone…

Most of these Big Tech-funded cables are collaborations among rivals. The Marea cable, for example, which stretches approximately 4,100 miles between Virginia Beach in the U.S. and Bilbao, Spain, was completed in 2017 and is partly owned by Microsoft, Meta and Telxius, a subsidiary of Telefónica, the Spanish telecom.  Sharing bandwidth among competitors helps ensure that each company has capacity on more cables, redundancy that is essential for keeping the world’s internet humming when a cable is severed or damaged. That happens around 200 times a year, according to the International Cable Protection Committee, a nonprofit group. 

There is an exception to big tech companies collaborating with rivals on the underwater infrastructure of the internet. Google, alone among big tech companies, is already the sole owner of three different undersea cables

Excerpts from Christopher Mims, Google, Amazon, Meta and Microsoft Weave a Fiber-Optic Web of Power, WSJ, Jan. 15, 2022

Under-Water Data Centers: Reliable, Cool and Cheap

Earlier this year a ship hauled a large, barnacle-covered cylinder sporting a Microsoft logo from the seas off the Orkney islands. Inside were a dozen server racks, of the sort found in data-centres around the world. Sunk in 2018, and connected to the shore by cable, the computers had spent the past couple of years humming away, part of an experiment into the feasibility of building data-centres underwater.

On September 14th, 2020 Microsoft revealed some results. The aquatic data-centre suffered equipment failures at just one-eighth the rate of those built on land. Being inaccessible to humans, the firm could fill it with nitrogen instead of air, cutting down corrosion. The lack of human visitors also meant none of the bumping and jostling that can cause faults on land.

Microsoft hopes some of the lessons can be applied to existing, land-based data-centers. In the longer term, though, it notes that building underwater offers advantages beyond just reliability. Immersion in seawater helps with cooling, a big expense on land. Data-centres work best when placed close to customers. Land in New York or London is expensive, but nearby sea-floor is cheap. More than half the world’s population lives within 120 miles (192km) of the sea. Ben Cutler, the engineer in charge of the project, says submarine data-centres could be co-located with offshore wind farms as “anchor” customers. The cylinder fits in a standard shipping container, so could be deployed to remote places like islands, or even disaster areas to support relief efforts.

Excerpts from Cloud computing: Davy Jones’s data-center, Economist, Sept. 19, 2020

Black Operations are Getting Blacker: US Military

Heterogeneous Collaborative Unmanned Systems (HCUS), as these drones will be known, would be dropped off by either a manned submarine or one of the navy’s big new Orca robot submersibles.

Logo for Orca Submarine by Lockheed Martin

They could be delivered individually, but will more often be part of a collective system called an encapsulated payload. Such a system will then release small underwater vehicles able to identify ships and submarines by their acoustic signatures, and also aerial drones similar to the BlackWing reconnaissance drones already flown from certain naval vessels.

BlackWing

Once the initial intelligence these drones collect has been analysed, a payload’s operators will be in a position to relay further orders. They could, for example, send aerial drones ashore to drop off solar-powered ground sensors at specified points. These sensors, typically disguised as rocks, will send back the data they collect via drones of the sort that dropped them off. Some will have cameras or microphones, others seismometers which detect the vibrations of ground vehicles, while others still intercept radio traffic or Wi-Fi.

Lockheed Martin Ground Sensor Disguised as Rock

HCUS will also be capable of what are described as “limited offensive effects”. Small drones like BlackWing can be fitted with warheads powerful enough to destroy an SUV or a pickup truck. Such drones are already used to assassinate the leaders of enemy forces. They might be deployed against fuel and ammunition stores, too.

Unmanned systems such as HCUS thus promise greatly to expand the scope of submarine-based spying and special operations. Drones are cheap, expendable and can be deployed with no risk of loss of personnel. They are also “deniable”. Even when a spy drone is captured it is hard to prove where it came from. Teams of robot spies and saboteurs launched from submarines, both manned and unmanned, could thus become an important feature of the black-ops of 21st-century warfare.

Excerpts from Submarine-launched drone platoons will soon be emerging from the sea: Clandestine Warfare, Economist, June 22, 2019

Stopping the Unstoppable: undersea nuclear torpedoes

On July 20th 1960, a missile popped out of an apparently empty Atlantic ocean. Its solid-fuel rocket fired just as it cleared the surface and it tore off into the sky. Hours later, a second missile followed. An officer on the ballistic-missile submarine USS George Washington sent a message to President Dwight Eisenhower: “POLARIS—FROM OUT OF THE DEEP TO TARGET. PERFECT.” America had just completed its first successful missile launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from beneath the ocean. Less than two months later, Russia conducted a similar test in the White Sea, north of Archangel.

Those tests began a new phase in the cold war. Having ICBMs on effectively invisible launchers meant that neither side could destroy the other’s nuclear arsenal in a single attack. So by keeping safe the capacity for retaliatory second strikes, the introduction of ballistic-missile submarines helped develop the concept of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD), thereby deterring any form of nuclear first strike. America, Britain, China, France and Russia all have nuclear-powered submarines on permanent or near permanent patrol, capable of launching nuclear missiles; India has one such submarine, too, and Israel is believed to have nuclear missiles on conventionally powered submarines.

As well as menacing the world at large, submarines pose a much more specific threat to other countries’ navies; most military subs are attack boats rather than missile platforms. This makes anti-submarine warfare (ASW) a high priority for anyone who wants to keep their surface ships on the surface. Because such warfare depends on interpreting lots of data from different sources—sonar arrays on ships, sonar buoys dropped from aircraft, passive listening systems on the sea-floor—technology which allows new types of sensor and new ways of communicating could greatly increase its possibilities. “There’s an unmanned-systems explosion,” says Jim Galambos of DARPA, the Pentagon’s future-technology arm. Up until now, he says, submariners could be fairly sure of their hiding place, operating “alone and unafraid”. That is changing.

Aircraft play a big role in today’s ASW, flying from ships or shore to drop “sonobuoys” in patterns calculated to have the best chance of spotting something. This is expensive. An aeroplane with 8-10 people in it throws buoys out and waits around to listen to them and process their data on board. “In future you can envision a pair of AUVs [autonomous underwater vehicles], one deploying and one loitering and listening,” says Fred Cotaras of Ultra Electronics, a sonobuoy maker. Cheaper deployment means more buoys.

But more data is not that helpful if you do not have ways of moving it around, or of knowing where exactly it comes from. That is why DARPA is working on a Positioning System for Deep Ocean Navigation (POSYDON) which aims to provide “omnipresent, robust positioning across ocean basins” just as GPS satellites do above water, says Lisa Zurk, who heads up the programme. The system will use a natural feature of the ocean known as the “deep sound channel”. The speed of sound in water depends on temperature, pressure and, to some extent, salinity. The deep sound channel is found at the depth where these factors provide the lowest speed of sound. Below it, higher pressure makes the sound faster; above it, warmer water has the same effect…

Even in heavily surveilled seas, spotting submarines will remain tricky. They are already quiet, and getting quieter; new “air-independent propulsion” systems mean that conventionally powered submarines can now turn off their diesel engines and run as quietly as nuclear ones, perhaps even more so, for extended periods of time. Greater autonomy, and thus fewer humans—or none at all—could make submarines quieter still.

A case in point is a Russian weapon called Status-6, also known as Kanyon, about which Vladimir Putin boasted in a speech on March 1st, 2018. America’s recent nuclear-posture review describes it as “a new intercontinental, nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo”. A Russian state television broadcast in 2015 appeared to show it as a long, thin AUV that can be launched from a modified submarine and travel thousands of kilometres to explode off the shore of a major city with a great deal more energy than the largest warheads on ICBMs, thus generating a radioactive tsunami. Such a system might be seen as preserving a second-strike capability even if the target had a missile-defence system capable of shooting ICBMs out of the sky…

One part of the ocean that has become particularly interesting in this regard is the Arctic. Tracking submarines under or near ice is difficult, because ice constantly shifts, crackles and groans loudly enough to mask the subtle sounds of a submarine. With ever less ice in the Arctic this is becoming less of a problem, meaning America should be better able to track Russian submarines through its Assured Arctic Awareness programme…

Greater numbers of better sensors, better networked, will not soon make submarines useless; but even without breakthroughs, they could erode the strategic norm that has guided nuclear thinking for over half a century—that of an unstoppable second strike.

Excerpts from Mutually assured detection, Economist, Mar. 10, 2018

Under-sea GPS: DARPA POSYDON

The objective of the POSYDON program is to develop an undersea system that provides omnipresent, robust positioning. DARPA envisions that the POSYDON program will distribute a small number of acoustic sources, analogous to GPS satellites, around an ocean basin.  By measuring the absolute range to multiple source signals, an undersea platform can obtain continuous, accurate positioning without surfacing for a GPS fix.

DARPA program  April 14, 2015