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Exploring Undersea Frontiers

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In 1965, six “oceanauts” lived 100 meters below the Mediterranean Sea in an underwater habitat called Conshelf III for three straight weeks, with almost no contact with the outside world. The project was led by French sea explorer Jacques Cousteau and represented the longest period of time humans had ever lived at that depth.

The IBM ® 1050 Data Communications System, one of the earliest teleprocessing computer terminals, enabled the oceanauts to communicate with the above-water headquarters—150 technicians on board 12 ships near Monaco. For 22 days, the oceanauts breathed a helium-oxygen mix instead of air—which could have been lethal in the high-pressure environment on the sea floor—and performed tasks outside the ocean-floor “house” to simulate work that could potentially be done on offshore oil wells. During these three weeks, the IBM 1050 continuously fed information collected from this pioneering underwater experiment to an IBM 1620 computer housed in a mainland data center for real-time analysis and future study.

The three Conshelf experiments were a landmark project, showing the underwater capabilities of humans—even before a man would walk on the moon for the first time. Through documentary films and television programs, the Conshelf projects raised awareness of the potential for undersea exploration and helped draw attention to the pollution of oceans, giving rise to the first efforts at ocean conservation.

IBM’s work in undersea research and exploration started in the 1950s when IBM calculators were used to prepare navigational charts and analyze marine data. The Conshelf project was the company’s highest-profile initiative, but in the past six decades, IBM has undertaken a number of undersea research and exploration projects with the goals of advancing conservation, fighting crime and even discovering new medicines.

In the late 1960s, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California used IBM 1800 computers onboard its research vessels, and the IBM System/360 Model 50 was used to model the effects of dumping incinerated waste into the sea—without actually dumping the waste. The System/360 also was used in 1970 by the National Oceanographic Data Center to maintain the largest collection of oceanographic station data in the United States: 85 percent of the world’s data. 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 2007, IBM again implemented an undersea data collection and communications solution—this time for the purpose of undersea crime-scene investigation. IBM worked with a Florida university to develop a first-of-a-kind pilot that would allow all parties involved to see a “crime scene” situation and interact in real time via voice, data and video, whether on land or underwater at the scene.

The scenario was set under 32 feet of water 1.5 miles from the shore. Sonar and video sensors were incorporated with a wireless ship-to-shore communications link between divers on a ship at the scene, a simulated emergency operations center on land, and an Internet link to a medical examiner in another city. At that time, this type of unified, real-time wireless communications, both above and underwater, among multiple investigative parties had not been accomplished. The project was a success, with scientists looking at the possibility of developing technology that would allow divers to see underwater in zero-visibility conditions.

“This was the first time these people were having real time communications while seeing the same crime scene from multiple locations,” says Ian Steinberg, business development executive, IBM Global Process Services, who helped develop the project. “It was great to know that we were all playing a part in what could one day help all investigators solve crimes faster.”

In 2011, IBM collaborated with scientists from the University of Aberdeen’s Marine Biodiscovery Centre in Scotland to identify a mystery chemical compound produced by a bacteria in the deepest place on Earth—the Mariana Trench, at more than 35,000 feet below the Pacific Ocean.

University of Aberdeen scientists have begun to focus on the potential of ocean organisms as a possible source of compounds that could be used to develop new medicines to fight cancer, infection and parasitic diseases. The Mariana Trench bacteria, Dermacoccus abyssi, produced a compound that scientists could not identify. IBM researchers used a technique called atomic force microscopy and density functional theory calculations to successfully identify the compound.

The process of identifying an unknown compound, which can take weeks or months, had been decreased to a matter of a few days. Looking forward, scientists can potentially reduce the time it takes to identify other compounds, which could in turn reduce the time to develop new medicines and bring those new treatments to patients.

IBM’s innovative projects under the surface of our oceans continue to advance efforts to improve the way we manage conservation, public safety and healthcare. Advances in those fields also hold potential for scientific breakthroughs in other areas of our lives.