August 15, 2011

MBARI engineers provide software for new ALOHA ocean observatory


This map shows the location of the ALOHA Cabled Observatory relative to the Hawaiian island chain. Base image: Google Earth

On June 6, 2011 the ALOHA Cabled Observatory (ACO) “went live,” returning data from instruments on the deep seafloor, about 60 nautical miles north of Oahu, Hawaii, and 4,800 meters below the ocean surface. Funded by the University of Hawaii and the National Science Foundation (NSF), the ALOHA observatory uses a retired telecommunications cable to provide data and electrical connections for a variety of research instruments. These instruments currently include lights, a video camera, and devices to measure ocean temperature, salinity, underwater sounds, and currents. Over the next few years, additional instruments will be hooked up to the observatory to provide continuous, real-time monitoring of conditions in the depths of the Pacific Ocean.

The torrent of data from these instruments will provide unprecedented information about the deep sea. But first the data must be processed, stored, and archived in a robust shore-side computer system. Such a system must include software that is flexible enough to handle data from any instruments that scientists may add to the observatory in the future. It must also include software that can provide data on demand for scientists around the world. Fortunately for the University of Hawaii, MBARI engineers have spent over a decade developing computer software and data-management tools that do just this.

Duane Edgington, MBARI’s Software Engineering group leader, describes how MBARI’s collaboration on the ALOHA mooring started: “Several years ago, I was invited to give an informal talk at an American Geophysical Union meeting. My talk was about our NSF-funded project to apply MBARI’s observatory software technology to our MARS testbed.” [MARS, the Monterey Accelerated Research System, is MBARI’s cabled observatory in Monterey Bay].

“Bruce Howe [chief scientist on the ALOHA observatory] was in the audience, and he gave a talk after mine regarding the ALOHA project. He mentioned in his talk that he needed exactly the kind of software I had described, to collect and manage the data coming off of ALOHA. Bruce’s discussions with me and with Tom O’Reilly, who helped develop much of our observatory software, started the collaboration that led to this technology being applied to the ALOHA cabled observatory.”

The software systems and tools that Edgington and O’Reilly discussed, and which were eventually adapted for use in the ALOHA observatory, include the following:

  • The “plug-and-work” initiative—a program to develop standards for connecting oceanographic instruments to data-collection systems.
  • SIAM (Software Infrastructure and Applications for MOOS [MOOS is the Monterey Ocean Observing System])—a set of software tools that helps researchers integrate plug-and-work instruments into an ocean observatory, and allows monitoring and remote control of these instruments from shore.
  • SSDS (Shore-Side Data System)—a data-management system that stores data from a wide variety of oceanographic platforms and instruments, and allows researchers to search, retrieve, and plot that data.

This photograph shows the instruments currently hooked up to the ALOHA Cabled Observatory. Image: (c) 2011 University of Hawaii

O’Reilly continues the story, “We carefully designed SIAM and SSDS to be portable to a wide variety of observatory architectures, from limited-power and low-bandwidth moored systems to high-power and high-bandwidth cable-to-shore networks. We’ve always intended our software to be useful and readily extended by others in the oceanographic community, so it is very gratifying to see it applied so successfully by our ALOHA colleagues.”

MBARI’s Platforms Engineering group leader, Kent Headley, was also happy about how the collaboration turned out. He says, “One outcome I thought was very positive was that University of Hawaii was able to adopt and use SSDS and SIAM using only modest support from MBARI. Technology transfer, especially for software, can be challenging for research labs, since they often have limited engineering resources. It is a tribute to both the impressive technical capability of our ALOHA colleagues and to the quality of MBARI engineering that this sophisticated observing system software could be transferred with relative ease.”

Headley concludes, “It is great that our work can enable ocean science in the larger community. This is a direct fulfillment of MBARI’s mission and a big win for all concerned.”

For additional information or images relating to this article, please contact: Kim Fulton-Bennett