Major eco-friendly breakthrough for subsea cable repair

Cable Ship Rene Descartes © Flickr/cc-licence/Mark Stainton

Cable Ship Rene Descartes © Flickr/cc-licence/Mark Stainton

  • Massive savings in costs, time and other resources
  • Multi-national, multi-disciplinary teams have worked on the problem for years
  • Applicable worldwide using inexpensive, renewable materials 
  • Will start in warm shallow seas and progress to the abysmal depths

For many years past, government forces around the world have trained and used marine mammals for military purposes (or "porpoises" if you hail from New Jersey). Traditionally such animals have been cetacean (such as bottlenose dolphins) and pinnipeds (such as seals, sea lions and belugas); highly intelligent creatures that can be trained to undertake a variety of underwater missions such as search and rescue and the recognition and pinpointing of subsea munitions such as mines. They have also been used frequently on spying missions.

Now, today, comes the news that academics and marine biologists are working with multinational and multi-disciplinary teams of telecoms and sub-sea cable engineers and scientists in efforts to pioneer the use of another species of intelligent marine animals in making repairs to damaged cables on the deep seabed itself, thus saving the time and expensive resources currently needed either to repair a festoon in situ or bring it to the surface for examination, diagnosis and remedial refurbishment such as splicing or gluing. 

Tests are underway at the Secure Nautical Octopoda Research Kelvin Effect Laboratory (SNORKEL) situated near the small coastal town of Invercockaleekie on the remote north-west coast of Scotland. In an interview with TelecomTV this morning, the laboratory's Lead Scientist, Capitaine Églefin, who is on secondment to the unit from the world famous Centre Scientifique de Erquy in the Domaine de Lanruen, Brittany, France, said: "For a long time now we have been seeking a marine animal that can be trained and put to work repairing cables on the seabed. After much research and trial and error we have excluded a range of marine creatures and settled on members of the genus 'Octopodidae'. Initially, many within the scientific community questioned whether these highly intelligent animals have the brain-power and learning capability to work in partnership with humans to help keep sub-sea cable systems functioning when breakages occur. We have proven that they do. Our maze and problem solving experiments show the Octopodidae have a sophisticated memory system that can both store and recall short- and long-term training and also learn new skills 'on the job'."

The scientific teams settled on the Octopodidae because not only do the creatures have the highest brain-to-body mass ratios of all invertebrates, that ratio is often actually greater even than that of many vertebrates, including some of the local human population. Octopodidae have a highly complex nervous system, only part of which is localised in a main brain, which is contained in a cartilaginous capsule in the main body sac of the animal. Two-thirds of an octopus's neurons are found in the nerve cords of its arms, which show a variety of complex reflex actions that persist even when they have no input from the main brain. Unlike vertebrates, the complex motor skills of octopuses are not organised in their brain via an internal somatotopic map of its body, instead using a nonsomatotopic system unique to large-brained invertebrates, which has proven to be invaluable in a working octopus.

Capitaine Églefin continued, "In essence, in addition to a main brain, the creatures also have a separate brain in each tentacle. They have an excellent and delicate sense of touch and the suction cups on the tentacles are equipped with chemoreceptors so the octopus can taste what it touches. We have shown that they can easily distinguish between American, British, Chinese, French and Russian cables, as well as many others, by taste alone. With three hearts and blue blood, these creatures truly are the aristocrats of the deep."

The Sea-Green Incorruptibles

Another characteristic of the Octopodidae is their ability to change colour to blend in with their background. Ensign Terence O' Toole of the an tSeirbhís Chabhlaigh (Irish Navy), who is working with Commander Buster Crabbe of the Royal Navy and August von Herringen (late of the German Imperial Navy), all of whom have wide experience in managing the camouflage painting of everything from battleships to bumboats, are working on determining if the natural camouflage capabilities of the octopus can be pressed into use for offensive as well as defensive purposes.

Ensign O'Toole commented, "It's a jungle down there at the bottom of the ocean. There have been many instances where malign interference by state actors has resulted in deliberate and sometimes catastrophic breakages in strategically vital submarine cables. But, what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and we are training our tentacled allies to commit acts of sabotage in retaliation should there be any further incidents."

When Operation Snorkel goes live, a year from now, it will initially be in warm, shallow waters such as the Mediterranean. Later, when the system has been shown to be viable in real-world conditions, representatives of the Octopodidae genus able to live and work at greater depths in more challenging conditions such as those found in the deep North Atlantic will, literally, be pressed into service.

Invercockaleekie has a long tradition in the manufacture of a particularly robust type of tweed and the village pet shop has a small sporran-breeding facility. Volunteer octopi are being fitted with bespoke tartan body harnesses equipped with state-of-the-art tentacle-mounted cameras and high luminosity lights.

As Quinton McHale, Head of High Impact Brain-Storming at a leading US Tier 1 telco, explained, "It costs a lot of time, money and devotion to train these critters. Very often we become very attached to them, it's hard not to, and we like to keep them as snug, safe and retrievable as possible. The harnesses are silk-lined and thanks to the incredible tensile strength and indigestibility of the local wool, under the right conditions, we can lower them and tug 'em back up from five miles down within a matter of a few hours."

McHale does admit that it hasn't all been plain sailing. "In the early days we experienced some problems with subjects that were encased in particularly gaudy tartan. They could cope with the muddy browns, foggy greys and misty greens of the kilts favoured by the local population and quickly changed colour to blend in with what they were wearing. However, a few of those that were kitted out in Royal Stewart found the experience too much. Several had nervous breakdowns and had to be taken off the programme. The survivors are recuperating in the fish tank at the local Indian restaurant where they can lie quietly and imitate the subdued tones of the purple and burnt umber stains on the flock wallpaper."

He added, "In the early days of the programme we experimented with housing our subjects in bagpipes but we found the drones, stocks and chanters, which are made of a particularly oily and heavy African hardwood similar to ebony, were too heavy. It was the equivalent of putting a volunteer into a medieval suit of armour and dropping them into Loch Ness. We had a few unfortunate fatalities and quickly discontinued that particular approach. We are on the right track now though. We're happy and we like to think the subjects are as well."

The Snorkel Experiment is a long-term project and plans are already in hand for the next phase. Capitaine Églefin would give little away, other than to say for really deep sea offensive cable manoeuvres the Institute is looking to capture, tame and train a squadron of giant squid. He told us, "They are proving difficult to track and trace, but we do have a world famous equestrienne helping us. As all Brits know, Baroness Dido Harding's expertise is second to none in this regard. We expect great things of her."

Unfortunately, the first expedition to capture a giant squid ended in disaster when the Good Ship Lollipop was sunk in the Southern Ocean by an enraged 400 feet long bull squid that had been interrupted mid-coitus at a depth of 1000 fathoms. The Lollipop went down off the Falkland Islands. Only one crew member survived to tell the terrible tale, the amiable, tattooed Polynesian harpoonist and reformed cannibal Qeegqueg, who was found three days later floating on the ship's pink flamingo-shaped lilo in Port Stanley harbour.

Despite the setback, the team in Invercockaleekie remains upbeat. "We will continue to seek the best possible solution to the perennial problem of subsea cable breakages and repairs," said Melon Husk, the multi-billionaire eminence gris behind the programme. "I'll be giving it my full attention when I get back from Mars."​

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