We spoke with Martin Connelly, co-founder and commercial director of UltraMAP, about the ever-present threats to submarine cable infrastructure and what can be done to keep it safe from harm
Submarine cable infrastructure is responsible for the vast majority of international data traffic around the world and, as data demand continues to increase, our reliance on these systems is only going to grow.
It goes without saying that damage to these cables can be catastrophic for connectivity, as well as being complex and expensive to repair. Thus, as is so often the case, prevention is better than cure, and monitoring this infrastructure to pre-empt disaster has become a crucial part of the submarine cable industry.
Martin Connelly, co-founder and commercial director of monitoring specialist UltraMAP, explained how they can watch maritime activity from afar and intervene before damage is done.
“In 2008, we were approached by one of our geographical information systems (GIS) customers to create some software – they had a big problem with ships dropping their anchor on top of their cable and they wanted to do something about it,” explained Connelly. “We devised a way of tracking vessels online and showing them together with the cable. The system we created was designed to set off alarms whenever any vessel we were tracking was exhibiting potentially cable-damaging behaviour. So, our asset monitor was specifically designed and written to protect subsea cables.”
Threats to submarine cables come in many different forms, from trailing anchors to natural disasters. Some of these threats can be minimised during cable design; for example, systems are typically planned to avoid areas of seismic activity where possible. Nonetheless, the risk can never be entirely eliminated, especially when it comes to these cables’ biggest threat: maritime activity.
“Since we started, the threats have remained constant and they encompass things from naturally occurring events, like earthquakes, to deliberate sabotage in some cases. Some of these things you can’t do anything about, but by far the biggest cause of damage to subsea cables is from manmade encroachment,” said Connelly, noting that it was not just anchors but also fishing and dredging that regularly damage this infrastructure.
For UltraMAP, effective monitoring goes far beyond accessing real-time data and interventions to prevent damage. In fact, many years of monitoring has created a wealth of data which can itself be analysed to provide useful insights for customers.
“One of the later, more surprising aspects of our growth has been with data. We collect gigabytes upon gigabytes of data every day, collecting information from vessels out at sea, and that data has become quite valuable over time,” explained Connelly. “Over the ten or more years that we’ve been collecting this information, we’ve built quite a database. A lot of our customers use that for route planning and evidential purposes.”
But one challenge that still remains is communication between the ecosystem at large. Connelly highlight how, even though approved cables should be added to maritime navigation equipment as part of the deployment process, this is often an afterthought.
“Sometimes the cables don’t make their way onto ships’ navigation systems and we’re regularly in communication with vessels out at sea where we’re carrying out an intervention and they are in disbelief that there is cable beneath them that they are about to drop their anchor on,” he explained, suggesting that clearer communication between the community will only become more vital as the sector’s activity increases.
“The seabed will become busier, and I think there’s an opportunity to bring more things together,” said Connelly. “We’re all part of this maritime community and I think communication between everyone out at sea is the biggest opportunity. We need to keep everyone talking to protect the global internet as well as our customers’ cables.”
Want to learn more about UltraMAP and the importance of effectively monitoring submarine cable infrastructure? UltraMap will be exhibiting at this year’s live Submarine Networks EMEA event