In one of my favorite true-crime books, evidence of murder is uncovered on a remote Pacific Ocean atoll amid shifting sands and tides. The title of the book by Vincent Bugliosi, And The Sea Will Tell, is, of course, metaphorical.
The sea may soon tell in a more literal sense. Just as we were getting used to the idea that our appliances are watching us, it seems there will be one less place to escape monitoring: the 71 percent of the planet covered by the oceans. The internet of things—that proliferating network of wifi-connected objects reshaping homes and cities while yielding troves of data—is so far confined mostly to land. But DARPA, the Pentagon’s research arm, just launched its Ocean of Things program to rectify that blind spot. In December it issued an announcement soliciting ideas, and this week hosted an informational day for would-be vendors.
DARPA’s goal is to be able to deploy thousands of small, low-cost floats, each with sensors that collect and upload data to be stored or immediately analyzed. A “smart” fridge or home assistant may have no greater agenda than to sell you a tub of hummus, but the US military’s goals are more complex. In the agency’s words, “Each smart float would contain a suite of commercially available sensors to collect environmental data—such as ocean temperature, sea state, and location—as well as activity data about commercial vessels, aircraft, and even maritime mammals moving through the area.” So if all goes as planned, pretty much everything from naval fleets to dinghies will be subject to the US military’s cloud-based scrutiny.
The two couples with sailboats who were the real-life protagonists of And the Sea Will Tell fled to their tiny island in the 1970s, where they fulfilled fantasies of getting away from it all. Even today, the ungoverned and inaccessible oceans symbolize an alluring escape for everyone from low-budget yachties to tech billionaires with dreams of government-free manmade islands. For all of them, and the rest of us, DARPA is making the world a better-known but slightly smaller place.