Wednesday, December 11, 2013

GeoNet 2023 Part 3: The way ahead

Before I start, I would like to point out that forecasting the future is difficult, particularly when it concerns technology and it is likely to lead to a BIG fail. This was expressed very well by Niels Bohr who said (and yes, I know there is dispute about who said this first):

“Prediction is very difficult – especially if it is about the future.”

In previous blogs (Part 1 and Part 2 of this series) I have shown that we have sometimes got it right in the past, so if I restrict myself to the future of GeoNet, perhaps I will increase my chances. So here goes - what will GeoNet (or what GeoNet becomes) look like in 2023?

Sensor networks 2023 ….
I expect sensor site numbers to explode in the coming decade as a whole series of technological advances come together. The number of sensors will increase by at least an order of magnitude, meaning GeoNet in 2023 will have round 6000 sensor sites available. This sounds far-fetched, but remember how few real-time sensor feeds we had 10 years ago.

What will bring about this change? I expect the same technology advances which have revolutionised computer and data communications technology will finally start making its mark on sensor technology. This has been slow to happen, but it will. The trick is to increase the density (number of sensors) while at least maintaining the measurement accuracy. Previous proposals for increased sensor coverage have advocated more but lower quality sensors. What I envisage is a world where just about everything (position, strain, temperature, pressure, chemistry, shaking level, etc.) can be measured to a high level of accuracy.

Where will all these new sensors come from? The answer is from an extension of existing and yet to be utilised techniques. For example, sensors for measuring temperature and pressure can use the changes in the properties of fibre optic cable lengths and rings. Micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) technology has come a long way in the last decade. We all have MEMS in our smartphones and tablets to tell the device which way is up (its orientation). These are low accuracy devices but very good ones exist and are improving all the time. These are already used in some of the strong shaking instruments we use (see the CUSP instruments). Price is the current barrier to widespread use of high accuracy MEMS sensors in very large numbers.

Consider the recent improvements in GPS technology. Again we all have GPS receivers in our smartphones and tablets. Expect the accuracy of GPS devices to increase with time and become part of multi-sensor platforms. In many respects our current smartphones have much of the technology required to act as sensor platforms, although they do not yet have the necessary sensor accuracy.

And I have not even mentioned nanotechnology yet! Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter on an atomic and molecular scale.This technology is already starting to produce very small sensors, and this trend is likely to continue. In some ways it is an extension of MEMS technology, but much smaller. The impact on sensor technology of nanotechnology is very hard to predict!

One of the real barriers to very good sensor coverage of New Zealand is the sea that surrounds us. It would be so much easier to locate earthquakes and monitor tsunami if we had sensors on the seabed surrounding New Zealand. The problem is that such sensors are currently very (very) expensive to install and maintain. But imagine if they were installed as part of the data communications infrastructure which connects different parts of New Zealand and other countries. An international collaboration I am involved in, which is a joint undertaking between United Nations organisations, scientific institutions and commercial companies is investigating the use of submarine cables as instrument platforms for environmental and hazards monitoring. Cables capable of carrying sensors (usually assumed to be at repeater sites; see Figure 1) are called green undersea cables. It is early days, but the requirements for low data latency, which is not available with most satellite technology, and route diversity will drive terrestrial solutions. It is therefore likely that there will be many more submarine cables installed in coming years. If these cables are utilised for sensor deployment we will end up with a huge number of sensors covering the world’s oceans.

Figure 1: A map of submarine cable routes. Submarine cable repeaters (blue dots) are along the cables although the total number is about four times those shown (40 to 150 km apart). A typical transpacific cable has about 200 repeaters. Current tsunami buoys and other ocean observatories are also plotted. The figure is from an ITU report.

Data communications 2013 ….
This is both the hardest and easiest capability to predict. If the past predicts the future, then data bandwidth will not be a problem for GeoNet in 2023. Predicting exactly how bandwidth will be made available to move the huge amount (by today's standards) of data collected by GeoNet 2013 is difficult. But our data volumes will be tiny compared to super high density 3D video (and virtual reality I assume, having read far too much science fiction). The "last mile" problem will be solved by current rural broadband initiatives and satellite technologies. So I will leave it at that, assuming there will be ample bandwidth available “somehow” for GeoNet in 2023!

GeoNet data 2023 ….
Everything will be in the cloud. The GeoNet data centre will be distributed and very resistant to geological hazards and equipment failures. It will reconfigure automatically and move data and processing capability and capacity around as required. The volumes of data collected each day will be orders on magnitude greater than today, but all data will still be online and easily accessed. The data archive and delivery will come from somewhere in the cloud electronically close to you. And the way it is delivered will be very configurable.

GeoNet outputs 2023 ….
By 2023 GeoNet will be providing very fast impact reports following geological events to a large number of stakeholders as well as the public and media. Much more background will be provided for events, and many new ways to visualise GeoNet data and information will be available in 2023. We have started to move in this direction by reporting likely felt intensity rather than just magnitude for earthquakes.

It will be a very mobile world – almost all data and information delivery will be to mobile devices but these will be closely connected to the cloud. With data, information and compute capability existing in the cloud, the distinction between mobile and fixed devices (like this computer I am typing these words into) will have little meaning. By 2013 GeoNet will be providing not only the data to researchers, but tailored compute capability to allow very detailed data analysis and modeling electronically close to users. 

Summary ….
Overall the development of GeoNet will continue to parallel that of computer and data communications technology. But additionally, expect to see a huge increase in the number and usability of sensor technology.

That's it from me in 2013. Now all I have to do is live long enough to see what happens!

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