LIVE Submersible Broadcasting

Live production onboard (Photo credit: Nekton via AP)


At last year’s IBC (September 2019), Associated Press (AP) was awarded the prestigious IBC Innovation Award for their undersea reporting during the First Descent Mission in Seychelles. The technical award was for the innovative storytelling and creativity made possible thanks to the partnership between AP, Nekton, Sonardyne, LiveU and Inmarsat. What made the award extra special was the fact that this was the first full HD quality multi-camera live signal from the depths of the ocean using optical video transmission techniques, in which the pictures transmit through the ocean waves using light in the electromagnetic spectrum.

The mission’s broadcasts were part of the Nekton Deep Ocean Research Institute’s First Descent expedition, which is exploring some of the world’s least explored areas around the Indian Ocean, as part of a project to increase understanding and aid protection of the marine life they contain. Very little research has been undertaken beneath 30metres (scuba depth) across Seychelles’ vast ocean territory of 1.37 million square kilometres. The objective is to contribute to establishing a baseline of marine life and the state of the ocean in Seychelles. Research is focused from the surface into the Bathyal Zone (200m to 3000m), home to the greatest patterns of biodiversity and impact of human activities on these vital ecosystems. Supported by 13 scientists based on the mother ship, the Ocean Zephyr, Nekton’s goal is to undertake at least 50 “first descents” into these waters to collect and generate data whilst live streaming their missions to interested parties.

Previous real-time video transmissions from the world’s deep oceans were signals sent from remotely operated unmanned subsea vehicles, with video and audio fed via a fixed or tethered video or fiber optic cable, or sent over a low quality digital live stream that also requires underwater cables and a significant time delay. Tethered cables restricted the freedom of movement of the unmanned vehicle and often ended in sliced or broken cables. When planning these missions, Nekton Deep Ocean Research Institute and Associated Press contracted, amongst others, pioneering subsea communications technology company Sonardyne to help provide the ways and means to transmit live video from the depths, without restricting the free-roaming submersibles, to the research vessel, Ocean Zephyr.

Sonardyne, who specialize in acoustic and non-acoustic technologies in marine environments, had the ideal solution in a recently developed product – the Bluecomm free space optical modem. With a depth rating of 4000m and a data rate of up to 10Mbps, BlueComm modems use an array of high power light emitting diodes (LEDs) that are rapidly modulated to transmit data. It uses a separate photomultiplier tube as its receiving element. BlueComm operates using visible light, which can travel significant distances through water, making it an excellent tool for wireless transfer of video. The general rule of thumb is whatever colour the water appears, is the colour which will be least absorbed. So blue in clean water is the least absorbed electromagnetic wavelength, making it the obvious colour the lights that BlueComm uses. Because it uses visible light, the system is most effective in low ambient light conditions such as deep water or shallow water nighttime operations and because Nekton were focusing on the Bathyal Zone, this kind of technology was a perfect fit. For shallower and turbid waters, Sonardyne have developed a ultra violet (UV) version which improves transmission where there is a lot of ambient light but the maximum possible range reduces to about 80 meters. The optical data transmission is highly energy efficient, enabling more than nine gigabytes of data to be transferred using a single Lithium D sized battery cell.

Onboard the Ocean Zephyr, the decoded video was uplinked using Inmarsat’s high bandwidth SAILOR 100 GX compact one-metre Ka-band terminal, with the back-up of FleetBroadband, allowing AP to send live footage from First Descent’s mother ship to their production hub in London and on to hundreds of broadcasters and digital publishers across the globe. Over 70 hours of live content was transmitted during First Descent’s mission in the Seychelles, including nine hours of prime-time television broadcast on Sky, and two-way interviews with the submersible crews. At one point, pictures were even beamed to the giant screens positioned above the concourses of London’s major railway stations, offering commuters a live ‘feed’ to events unfolding deep beneath the waves on the other side of the world. Sky News and Sky Atlantic, as part of Sky Ocean Rescue, which have also joined the mission, plan to broadcast more live subsea programmes in the future as the project develops.

Meanwhile, the potential of the Nekton Mission continues to unfold. Nekton has teamed up with the University of Oxford to develop artificial intelligence tools, for example, to accelerate analysis and publication. Data and video will be made available through OCTOPUS – Ocean Tool for Public Understanding and Science – to provide a holistic and dynamic view of the changing state of the Indian Ocean, its biodiversity and human impacts. Better connectivity can also increase participation and improved real-time communication opens the door for experts from developing nations to join the scientific exploration of the oceans. In fact, promoting local engagement is one of the Nekton Mission’s broader objectives and the project organisers made sure to create opportunities for marine scientists based in the Seychelles to participate in all aspects of the expedition.

Together with datasets and research findings emerging from the expedition, this inclusive approach is intended to support the Seychelles implement a Marine Spatial Plan, which will see around one-third of its national waters protected as part of building a sustainable Blue Economy. This is important because the way the Indian Ocean changes in the coming decades will profoundly affect the lives, livelihoods and wellbeing of the 2.5 billion people living in the Indian Ocean region. Their next mission is in the Maldives around April this year and then onto the Mozambique Channel, all coming to you live from under the sea thanks to groundbreaking technology, a whole bunch of flashing blue lights…and a little bit of magic!

LiveU is represented by Concilium Technologies in South Africa.