Dive and Discover: SeaNet Provides Vital Data Link Between Ship and Laboratory


Hundreds of watery miles separated R/V Knorr from land during the Central Indian Ridge expedition, cutting scientists and crew off from the transmission lines that link the land-based world to the Internet. Yet each day new stories, photographs, and even videos from the ship appeared on the Dive & Discover Web site, transferred via a communications system called SeaNet.

SeaNet utilizes high-speed satellite and other communications technology, as well as specialized software and hardware tools, to provide fast, affordable data transmission between ship and shore.
When SeaNet development began in 1995, one of the goals was to create an affordable data transfer system. The primary communication links to ships are satellites, which cost about $10 per minute then, and now cost about $5. To minimize costs, SeaNet’s developers created virtual “DataPipes” that allow easy transfer of data files in a fast (64,000 bytes per second), compact form directly from the shipboard computer to onshore computers.

Each evening after the daily text, photos, graphics, and videos were prepared for Dive and Discover, WHOI Web developer Lori Dolby entered, coded, and formatted the information on her shipboard computer system. Then Web page data were combined into one “batch” and “compressed” to save time and money during satellite transmission. Finally, a shipboard technician logged into the SeaNet system, established a connection to a satellite, and transferred the files to shore, where they were immediately uploaded for viewing, allowing anyone with Internet access to participate in the cruise in nearly real time.

The cost of satellite communications prohibits doing this often or for long periods of time. However, as the cost of satellite time decreases and computer compression software improves, routine online access to the Internet from ships will become feasible.
WHOI Research Engineer Steve Lerner and Senior Information Systems Specialist Andy Maffei led initial proof-of-concept testing for SeaNet with funding provided by Honorary Trustee and Executive Committee member George Moss and Corporation Member Joyce Moss. This led to further funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Navy to support a group of engineers and technicians from WHOI, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO), the Naval Postgraduate School, Joint Oceanographic Institutions Inc., and Omnet Inc. to continue development.

Today, WHOI, LDEO, and GeoProse Inc. support SeaNet operations on seven UNOLS (University National Oceanographic Laboratory System) ships. They are: Atlantis and Knorr (WHOI), Melville and Roger Revelle (Scripps), Ewing (LDEO), Seward Johnson (Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution), and Pelican (Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium). With funding from the W. M. Keck Foundation, an innovative, new SeaNet system is also being built to travel with the next generation Jason vehicle, Jason II.