After a decade of development, SMART Cables are headed to sea

24 May 2019 | Preston Thomas


Preston Thomas

Blog Author | regulatory and strategy consultant SMART Cables, Joint Task Force


At the recent 7th Workshop on SMART cables, held April 12 in New Orleans, the presenters each reinforced an exciting conclusion: After nearly a decade of development, dual-purpose telecom/science cables are crossing the threshold from concept to reality.

First proposed in 2010, the SMART cables (Scientific Monitoring And Reliable Telecommunications) premise is brilliant in its simplicity: Thousands of miles of subsea fibre-optic cables are laid every year along the sea floor. At the same time, hundreds of millions of dollars of oceanographic research funding is spent to obtain limited and incomplete deep oceanographic and seismic data.

Adding SMART capabilities into a cable starts at the repeaters. Because repeaters are spaced every 50-100 km along fibre optic cables and include power and communications infrastructure, they offer a natural potential platform for oceanographic sensors. In contrast to expensive one-off deep ocean monitoring systems like floats or single-purpose scientific installations, dual-purpose SMART cables allow the secondary scientific mission to share the telecommunications infrastructure. This allows the deployment of a near-global undersea sensor network at a cost that is a fraction of single-purpose science-only systems.

This concept launched a worldwide effort to combine connectivity investment with ocean science monitoring in a way that made technical and business sense. By integrating oceanographic sensors into future cables, two major investments can be combined, generating enormous synergistic value. The benefits of such “SMART cables” include improved cable survivability, new revenue streams from cable data, “green” credentials that are attractive to regulators, and uniquely valuable data and massive savings for the scientific community. SMART repeaters also offer a premium product line for marine tech manufacturers seeking to draw investment from both telecommunications and scientific sectors.

The development of the SMART Cables concept is spearheaded by the Joint Task Force (JTF), which represents the combined efforts of three United Nations agencies (International Telecommunication Union, World Meteorological Organization, and UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission), with experts from dozens of countries working to bring this concept to fruition. Since 2012, JTF has been facilitating efforts around the world to develop the technologies, legal framework, and business case that will allow SMART cables to move out of the lab and into the water.

The 7th Workshop in April (after the SubOptic conference), provided not only the clearest view to date of the technical implications of incorporating SMART capabilities into cable systems, it also laid out a schedule of confirmed, government-backed cable projects of increasing complexity and scope, defining an approximately five year arc from wet-demonstrator to full SMART cable system.

As explained by JTF chairman Bruce Howe, the first step out of the laboratory for SMART cables will be a European Union €2.5M project for a wet demonstration starting this year, to be installed off Sicily.

In parallel and following, the Gondwana-3 cable, from New Caledonia to Vanuatu, is a proposed 300 km, 2 repeater cable with funding through the French government; it is slated to be a true pilot dual-purpose cable with SMART capabilities included in the RFP.

Likewise, Indonesia’s 2019 funding package for multi-hazard early warning infrastructure will include $150-200M for ocean components, mostly cable-based systems. In addition to dedicated cable observatories (similar to S-net and DONET in Japan), this package is expected to include dual-use SMART cable systems.

ANACOM, the national regulatory authority (NRA) in Portugal for communications, has proposed SMART capability (and more) for the CAM ring system connecting Portugal, the Azores, and Madeira in a triangle system. The CAM Ring will also debut the use of fibre-strain sensing for additional seismic capabilities.

Steve Dawe and Simon Webster debuted a standardised “SMART Cable Annex” intended to answer the critical question facing any government or consortium planning a new cable: “How does including SMART capabilities affect my project?” This annex quantifies the effect of adding SMART capabilities in across three domains: Functional Requirements, Tenderer Requirements, and Contractor Requirements. It lays out qualitative aspects, such as a design philosophy of complete independence and fail-safe with respect to telecommunications functions, and quantitative aspects such as the space and power requirements at the cable station, total backhaul capacity needed, and any changes to the plan of work.

By separately validating SMART repeater and dual-purpose concepts, these projects and the SMART Cable Annex will set the stage for full integration of SMART repeaters into forthcoming projects.