Using Cloud Computing to Prevent Another Titanic Disaster

An old shipping problem meets a modern computing solution

Titanic sank with the loss of 1500 lives

The loss of the RMS Titanic in 1912 led to many improvements in maritime safety, and not just in terms of lifeboat provision or 24-hour radio duty. Icebergs had long been a shipping hazard in the North Atlantic, claiming a steady death toll since the age of sail, however it was the sinking of the Titanic and the massive loss of life that led to a public outcry for an international effort to deal with the threat, monitor the movement of icebergs, and report their positions to shipping. The International Ice Patrol was established in 1914, initially using surface patrol ships provided by the Revenue Cutter Service, a predecessor of the US Coast Guard.

In 1946 the first aerial ice patrol took place using a Catalina flying boat. Reconnaissance flights continue to the present day, and mariners who heed the warnings sent out by the patrol have never collided with an iceberg.

The patrol takes in data from aerial patrols, reported sightings from ships, and Earth Observation (EO) satellite data to feed a large database that tracks the movement of ice moving south into the Atlantic from the Greenland ice sheet where it breaks off. This is a considerable amount of data that requires a lot of processing power to predict the position of icebergs in advance.

The efficiency of the process has now been improved thanks to the adoption of a single cloud platform provided by Polar View, a project originally undertaken by the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency, and the European Commission. Polar View was incorporated as a company in the UK 2011 and now provides cloud computing services to maritime industries such as oil and gas, shipping, fishing, tourism, as well as helping with emergency management and scientific research.

Traditionally, EO data is downloaded by users who analyze it using their own computing resources. Polar View’s platform, originally developed for the ESA, allows users to access EO data and the analytics algorithms remotely without having to download vast quantities of data. This greatly simplifies and speeds up the process of turning a mountain of data into human-readable warnings that are digestible and useful to ship captains.

The technology will become even more important in the coming years. The Northwest Passage, a sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific north of the coast of Canada, was long closed off to shipping by Arctic ice. Now ocean temperatures are rising twice as fast in the Arctic than at lower latitudes, making the passage navigable for longer periods of time each year. According to some sources it could soon become viable as a commercial shipping route, knocking 5000 nautical miles off the trip from Europe to East Asia via the Suez Canal.

Passenger-carrying Ocean Liners like Titanic were eventually made obsolete by jet aircraft. However commercial cargo shipping in the North Atlantic is as busy as ever.  With more traffic making its way into these relatively uncharted waters, captains will need all the help they can get in steering clear of stray ice.