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The Tech Tank: A Testing Ground for the Next Generation of Ocean Sensing Systems

View slideshow NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center new Ocean Technology Development Tank. Credit: Vern Elmore copyright 2012 tech01.jpg tech02.jpg tech03.jpg tech04.jpg tech05.jpg tech06.jpg tech07.jpg

Watch the video above for an inside look at NOAA's new Southwest Fisheries Science Center. 

NOAA Fisheries is a world leader in developing new technologies for cost-effectively monitoring large marine ecosystems. We are:

How do you keep a close eye on what's happening in the oceans when they cover three quarters of the planet? NOAA scientists have been working on this problem, and their efforts are about to get a big boost.

How big? Two million liters big. That's the volume of the new Ocean Technology Development Test Tank, or as we like to call it—the Tech Tank. It's one of the highlights of NOAA’s recently opened Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California.

A testing ground for the sensors, submersibles, and other devices emerging from the workshops of NOAA scientists and engineers, the Tech Tank will hold as much water as twenty-five back yard swimming pools, and it will be the only tank of its size in the world that can be controlled for both temperature and salinity. From tropical temperatures to polar, and from freshwater to salt, scientists will be able to test their equipment under the broad range of conditions they find in the field.

Another thing that sets this tank apart: it will have life support systems for a variety of marine animals. Many sensors developed by NOAA scientists are designed to remotely detect marine species and measure their distribution and abundance. Having live organisms in the tank will allow scientists to calibrate their instruments against the real thing.

The Cutting Edge of Acoustic Technology

For example, NOAA scientists are developing advanced sonar systems that can recognize certain fish species based on their sonar signature. Sonar systems work by emitting a pulse of sound—a ping—and then recording the echo that bounces off of objects that it encounters. Different sizes and species of fish and zooplankton produce characteristic echoes, or sonar signatures, and these can be used to help identify their species. By placing animals in the Tech Tank and recording their echoes, scientists will create libraries of high-resolution sonar signatures characteristic of each species.

NOAA scientists used such signatures when they recently pioneered a technique that uses a combination of acoustical and optical sensors to identify and count individual rockfish near the seafloor. Because this is a non-lethal technique, it can be used to sample rare species without depleting their numbers. What’s more, this type of remote sensing technology will allow scientists to increase the accuracy of fish surveys while holding the line on costs.

Sonar is about active acoustics—we emit a noise and then analyze the return signal. But the ocean is already full of sound, and passive acoustics, where we just listen, is also a growing area of research. For instance, scientists have deployed arrays of underwater microphones in the ocean that function as a sort of surveillance system. Among other things, these hydrophones pick up the vocalizations of migrating whales, helping scientists to track their migrations and monitor changes in their abundance.  

A Vision for the Future

David Demer is the scientist leading NOAA’s Advanced Survey Technologies Group, and he has big plans for the Tech Tank. "Acoustics is an efficient technique for surveying marine life," he said, "but acoustical waves propagate differently under different conditions of temperature and salinity." By probing how sensors function in various simulated environments, he is pushing out the limits of sensor technology.

Although most fish surveys are conducted from a research vessel, onboard instruments are just the beginning. "Ocean sensors will routinely be deployed from buoys, drifters, gliders, landers, and other autonomous platforms," Demer predicts. Those platforms will be developed and tested in the technology tank as well. "Increasingly, sensors will even be deployed on animals themselves," he said, referring to the critter cams and satellite tags that scientists use to monitor the migration and behavior of marine mammals and sharks.

Demer envisions a future in which a network of sensors transmits a constant stream of data from the most vital parts of the ocean—near the sea surface, seafloor, and seashore. Monitoring these environments on a wide scale, cost-effectively and in real time, will help us to predict and adapt to changes in the marine environment.

But in order to do this, the sensors have to function in a wide range of environments, and they must be made smaller, more robust, and more energy efficient. The Tech Tank will quicken the pace of progress on those fronts.

The research boost will benefit non-NOAA scientists as well. With the largest tank of its kind in the world, this testing facility is a national asset that will be shared with partners and colleagues from other agencies and nations, from universities, and from the military.

“This tank will allow us to test the engineering of our instruments under near-real conditions, where you have the variability of the oceans and the presence of live organisms,” said Cisco Werner, Director of NOAA’s Southwest Fishery Science Center. “Having a facility where you can do that is what makes this Science Center unique.”