Emerging technologies for exploration and independent monitoring of seafloor extraction in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction

[The following is a transcript from a talk I gave at the 2019 Minerals, Materials, and Society Symposium at the University of Delaware in August, 2019. It has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Good afternoon and thank you all for coming. I want to change tracks for a bit and scan the horizon to think about what the future of exploration and monitoring in the high seas might look like because ocean and conservation technology is in the midst of an evolutionary shift in who has access to the tools necessary to observe the deep ocean.

This is the Area. Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, International Waters, the High Seas, the Outlaw Ocean. It’s the portion of the ocean that falls outside of national EEZs and is held in trust by the UN under the Convention on the Law of the Sea as the Common Heritage of Humankind. It covers 64% of the ocean and nearly half of the total surface of the Earth. It’s also the region in which most major deep-sea mining ventures intend to operate.

Deep-sea mining in the Area is comprised of three similar but distinct industries, depending on the type of ore a miner intends to access. There are seafloor massive sulphides, what ecologists would call deep-sea hydrothermal vents, which are small, discrete ore bodies that are rich in metals like copper, gold, and silver, and host bizarre, other-worldly ecosystems whose discovery fundamentally changed our understanding of what it means to be alive on planet Earth. There are polymetallic nodule fields which stretch out across vast swaths of the abyssal plain where metals accumulate into potato-sized accretions of cobalt, manganese, and nickel. Some estimates place the total area of polymetallic nodule fields at 70% of the ocean’s abyssal plains. And there are cobalt-rich crusts, which form on seamounts and are rich in cobalt, but also form the underlying habitat for biodiverse seamount ecosystems.

And though deep-sea mining has been the stuff of science fiction since at least Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in the last few decades it has made a significant transition from speculation to serious technological and policy progress. Two years ago a Japanese team successfully tested a mining tool designed to extract ore from a seafloor massive sulphide, while several company’s, including GSR and the Deme group are currently trialing the latest iteration of their polymetallic nodule collector. Meanwhile, both India and China have made significant national investments into enhancing their capacity to exploit the deep seafloor and India recently announced a major funding initiative to develop the tools and expertise to begin mining the deep ocean within their EEZ and in lease blocks in the Area.

And, of course, most notably and infamously, Nautilus Minerals was close to beginning production on their Solwara I prospect in Papua New Guinea, with three massive mining tools already completed and the world’s first exploitation permit for mining a seafloor massive sulphide in place, before a series of unfortunate events forced them into bankruptcy.

All of which leads me to one very important question when it comes to exploitation, exploration, enforcement, and conservation in the high seas: who gets to monitor the exploitation of the deep ocean and how?

If you approach this question from a purely policy perspective, the answer is pretty clear. Where specific regulations exist regarding monitoring regimes in the high seas, the practical assumption is that a small group of actors will have the ability to conduct monitoring of the seabed. These include the contractors themselves, who are effectively the only private entities with the financial resources and the incentive to conduct large scale monitoring; nation states who have capital equipment and resources to assert their presence in the deep ocean; and the International Seabed Authority itself, who has no real capacity to access the seafloor, but as the licensing authority for mining leases in areas beyond national jurisdiction, sets the requirements for environmental monitoring and, ostensibly, is empowered to enforce them.

But, as is often the case, technological development in the ocean is moving much faster than the policy regime that shapes who can access the high seas, and wherever there are gaps in policy that allow technological innovation to enter a space, it will. Right now, high seas policy is structured around this assumption of functionally limited access, where only a few actors have the capacity to mount an expedition to the deep benthos and conduct large scale surveys of the seafloor.

That no longer reflects the current technological reality. If deep-sea mining has seen significant progress in the last decade towards developing the tools to actually conduct mineral exploitation in the deep ocean, ocean technology in general, has undergone a tectonic shift in the development and democratization of the tools necessary to access every part of the ocean. So if you approach this question from a purely technological perspective, the answer is…


What do I mean by everyone? What I’m talking about are three overlapping phenomena that fundamentally remove barriers to entry for ocean stakeholders: the expansion of open-source science hardware development, not just in ocean technology, but across a range of disciplines; the rise of community-supported science and conservation movements which bypass traditional gatekeepers that restrict access; and the privatization of capital equipment. We’re approaching a point in time where the factors that prevent most individuals, organizations, and stakeholders from accessing the deep ocean are no longer financial or technological; where a small, creative team with a relatively modest budget and access to the right vessel can open the entire deep ocean for exploration.

I want to start with that last one, privatization of capital equipment, because it’s the easiest to understand and the odd duck in this discussion, since it’s not so much about the cost of technology going down, but the personal wealth of a small number of individuals going up. In the last two decades we’ve seen a shift in capital assets: ships, ROVs, and submarines towards private ownership. This is most dramatically revealed in the last two dives to Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, first by director and ocean explorer James Cameron, who has a significant background in ocean technology and was supported in this endeavor by the National Science Foundation, NOAA, and National Geographic, so it wasn’t really a truly private endeavor. More recently, a private individual, who could accurately be described within the ocean science world as “some dude” financed a $50 million dollar expedition to the bottom of several deep trenches, including the Mariana. What’s interesting about this case is that Victor Vescovo isn’t really an ocean science, conservation, or industry person. He’s a private equity investor and adventure thrill-seeker doing the underwater equivalent of summit bagging.

In addition to these more visible cases, there’s also the rise of family foundations financing ocean exploration, including the Schmidt Ocean Institute, OceanX, Vulcan, and many many others.

What this means is that there are now capital ocean assets with full ocean capabilities that are not dependent on any nation or company to finance and deploy expeditions in the high seas. If Victor Vescovo, who, as an American citizen isn’t even fully beholden to the Law of the Seas decided that he wanted to spend the rest of his career monitoring nodule extraction in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone via submersible, there is currently no regulatory system in place that would apply to him.

So if you have $50 million dollars lying around you can buy your way to the bottom of the sea, but what about concerned stakeholders who don’t have access to unimaginable personal wealth?

In the last five years we’ve seen the growth of community-supported capital equipment acquisition and technological development, best highlighted by two representative programs: the Community Submersibles Project and OpenROV. The Community Submersibles Project is an effort to democratize access to submarines by essentially creating a maritime co-op, where engineers and marine experts donate their time to maintenance and operation while potential users invest in what is functionally a submarine time share, allowing people who wouldn’t otherwise be able, to utilize this kind of equipment. They currently have two human occupied submarines, one of which is a former Norwegian military sub with a 500-mile range and a 300-meter depth rating and it’s… pretty awesome. As they expand their fleet to include more sophisticated deep diving submersibles, it’s conceivable that stakeholders, researchers, environmentalists, and documentarians may begin making regular visits to the seafloor around mining prospects and other exploitation sites, similar to Greenpeace’s recent work diving on the Amazon reef to challenge an oil exploitation licensee’s EIA.

But, if diving into the abyss in a communal submarine maintain by volunteers isn’t something that appeals to you, you can always join the ever-growing armada of microROV operators. MicroROVs, like the OpenROV Trident, are small observation-class ROVs capable of monitoring and measuring the ocean far below the depths available to SCUBA divers. This particular image is from an expedition to the SS Tahoe, a steamship that was scuttled in Lake Tahoe in about 200 meters of water and lost for half a century. A traditional submarine archaeology expedition to survey the wreck costs close to a quarter-million dollars, but by partnering with OpenROV, underwater archaeologists were able to mount this expedition, with the help of a community of ROV pilots and engineers, for a few thousand dollars, and were able to visualize the wreck in far more detail than they could with technical divers or large research ROVs.

But 200 meters is hardly the deep sea…

This is a very rough survey of cost versus depth for deep-diving robotic assets, and I’m still collecting data and chasing down price quotes. That upper bound is speculative based on one manufacturer’s projection for an ROV still in development, but at this point in time, the relationship between cost and depth for very basic robotic assets that provide high definition video feeds and allow some real-time control of the vehicle is fairly linear. Every meter of depth will cost you about $10 USD.

Reaching the Clarion-Clipperton Zone’s abyssal plain could cost as little as $60,000, well within the budgets of most major NGOs and heaps of private stakeholders.

But ROVs aren’t the only tools that allow us to measure and explore the deep ocean. Increasingly, open-source development projects are dramatically reducing the cost while expanding the capabilities of some fundamental tools for ocean science.

Three representative examples of this are the OpenCTD, the ACKBAR camera, and the Sea Rocket. OpenCTD is a fully open-source oceanographic instrument that measures salinity, temperature, and depth throughout a water column. A CTD is the foundational tool of oceanography, required in almost every discipline of marine research, and, for many stakeholders, it’s prohibitively expensive, with the cheapest units running around $6000. The OpenCTD costs about $350 and can be built, calibrated, and maintained by the end user, and can be highly customized for a variety of use cases. ACKBAR is a deep-sea imaging camera developed for deployments in thousands of meters of water that takes high-definition, stereoscopic video for a few thousand dollars. Finally, the Sea Rocket is a highly reliable lander system designed to carry payloads to the seafloor and return the with a high degree of confidence. It can be launched and recovered by hand from a small vessel, requires no expensive and failure prone electronics, and can be built by primary school student. A full-ocean capable Sea Rocket is currently in development.

So, since a lot of this sounds like idealistic science fiction, I want to leave you with a story: This was my last research vessel, it’s a Polynesian voyaging canoe built to traditional specifications with modern systems and materials. When not under sail, it’s powered by solar-electric motors or a small diesel engine that runs on coconut oil. It’s an incredibly stable, versatile platform for marine operations, and this particular ship has completed at least two Pacific crossings. Two springs ago, I had the privilege of leading a capacity-building program in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to train local community leaders, including several members of this ship’s crew, to build, operate, and maintain small, open-source ROVs, one of which is now part of the vessel’s research toolkit. The ship is currently homed in Yap, which means that right now it has the capacity and range to conduct surveys on several relatively-shallow seafloor massive sulphide deposits in the FSM and US EEZs.

But that’s not all, because ships like this could serve as staging vessels for a suite of full-ocean capable Sea Rockets. In addition to the tremendous cultural value of reconnecting Polynesian and Micronesian Islands through traditional voyaging, the route between Yap and Guam, which was the last surviving trade route before the voyaging renaissance of the last 50 years, sails directly over Challenger Deep. Which means in the near future, a ship very much like this, sailing on almost no budget, driven exclusively by the desire to maintain traditional Pacific seafaring and wayfinding, could be the chief means by which the scientific community accesses the deepest parts of our ocean.

This was a really brief overview of the state of low-cost ocean technology development. If the last century of ocean exploration and exploitation has been limited to those with the financial resources to create and maintain extremely expensive tools, creating a barrier to entry that only nations and major corporations could overcome, the next century is going to be driven by an absolute armada of explorers, adventurers, citizen scientists, informal researchers, environmentalists, and other ocean stakeholders who won’t need access to major funding nor need to ask anyone for permission to access the deep sea.

In the high seas this present an additional logistical problem, because the regulations currently produced by the ISA for exploration and exploitation of the Area, as well as those under revision now, don’t account for or apply to individuals. Beyond a few limited rules about protesting on the high seas, there’s nothing currently that prevents a small conservation organization, or even a private individual from deciding that they want to see what’s happening in the CCZ, chartering a yacht, sailing to the middle of the Pacific, and deploying landers or other observation systems within a contractor’s lease blocks.

And I don’t necessarily think this is a problem, I actually think the potential for truly independent monitoring opens up a suite of opportunities for contractors, stakeholders, and regulators and could lead to unprecedented transparency in the most remote places on the planet, but I do think that right now both regulatory bodies and contractors are dramatically underestimating the potential for these tools to fundamentally change how society at large interacts with and experiences the deep ocean.

Thank you.