What's going on under the ocean? Alphabet's X has a plan to find out

Alphabet's "moonshot factory" announced a new technology to better map the action going on under the sea.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

Alphabet's subsidiary X is working on a new project, although ironically enough for Google's 'moonshot' factory, this one is looking straight down. Dubbed Tidal, the initiative hopes to provide a clearer vision of something that still carries a great degree of mystery: the ocean. 

Working with fish farmers, Tidal has developed an underwater camera system that, combined with machine-perception software, can track and interpret fish behavior not visible to the human eye.

The system can analyze how each individual fish eats, and also record water temperature and oxygen levels. The technology will come in handy for fish farmers, who could use it to track the health of their fish and manage their pens more efficiently. By helping farmers adapt the quantity of food they put in the pens to their fish's appetite, for instance, Tidal hopes that the project will help reduce both costs and pollution. 

To manage fish pens, the tools available to farmers are currently much more elementary. Tidal's managing director Neil Davé quickly found out, after some research, that fish farmers based their decisions on observing a few individual fish out of the water and manually inspecting them. 

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"Today, the health and welfare decisions for thousands of fish are based on… a data-gathering process that's time-consuming, unreliable and impossible to scale," wrote Davé in a post announcing the project. "We thought we could help."

As useful as Tidal's system could be to farmers, Davé was clear that fish pens are only the first application of the technology. "This is just one area in which we hope to help," he said. At the heart of the project, in true X style, lies the ambitious goal of mapping the ocean. "Our initial area of focus is on developing technologies that bring greater visibility and understanding of what's going on underwater," added Davé.

According to Tidal's general manager, scientists know more about the moon than they do about the deepest parts of the ocean floor. And the National Ocean Service's statistics seem to confirm his comment: the organization says that more than 80% of the ocean is unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored

The reason for such a knowledge gap is that deep waters and technology don't mix well. Crushing pressure levels and electronics-defying saltwater mean that scientists have a limited choice of tools when it comes to scanning the ocean floor. 

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Typically, sonar technology is deployed to measure the depth of the sea floor and to develop a 3D map based on how fast sound travels. But what oceanographers might have perceived as a lack of access to adequate resources, Alphabet's X saw as an opportunity. Davé said that the underwater camera system developed by Tidal could go a long way: "As we validate our technology and learn more about the ocean environment, we plan to apply what we've learned to other fields and problems, with the help of ocean health experts and other organizations eager to find new solutions to protect and preserve this precious resource," he said.

There is reason to be optimistic: X is the research and development branch of Alphabet, and the subsidiary has already spun-off several projects. Most notably, the company's self-driving initiative Waymo was launched in 2011 and has now set itself as one of the leading enterprises in the industry. That's not to say, however, that all of the solutions that X's team comes up with are always successful. Google Glass – a head-mounted wearable computer that was immediately snubbed by consumers – came straight out of X's brainstorming sessions.

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