CES 2020: 3 Tech Trends That Will Impact Our Coasts

Key take-aways from CES 2020 for the marine and coastal communities.

Jan 10, 2020

I’ve just returned from my first trip to wild and wonderful CES – the largest consumer technology convention in the world. Although the 4-day event, held annually in the desert landscape of Las Vegas, might not seem to directly pertain to our lives on the coast, I was given plenty of food for thought about new technologies and products that will definitely impact both our coastal communities and our lives on the water.

Three main take-aways:

  1. Self-driving boats for the everyday boater aren’t far away and will change our experience of being on the water.
  2. Robots in our seas are a reality, helping us understand, discover, and work in our oceans in ways that have been previously inaccessible.
  3. The resilience of our coastal communities can be improved by technologies, but is ultimately reliant on our ability to communicate and work together.

Autonomous “Sensate” Boating?

CES is one of the biggest automotive shows in the world and, while there were only a couple of boats, many of the technologies on display are applicable to boats and are already being implemented on ships. In safety improvements alone this is an exciting space. However, while its likely we’ll soon see these intelligent systems and components in our ‘consumer’ boats, this is not nearly as interesting as the implications of other technologies and concepts that are further out, such as the sensate experience Daimler is working on with their new Mercedes concept car.

This car — unveiled during the keynote given by Daimler’s Chairman of the Board, Ola Källenius – was designed in partnership with James Cameron and the team behind the Avatar film. It pushes the boundaries of what a car is and does into a completely new territory, imagining a vehicle as a sensate ‘membrane’ communicating between us and the natural world. I won’t get into all the details (you can find them in his presentation), but this kind of thinking, the extreme innovation of the control sets, and the total lack of a traditional screens, points in a new exciting direction for transportation – one that most of us have yet to even imagine.

It left me intrigued about the possibility of a super-enhanced boating experience, where one ‘feels’ a two-way relationship with the boat and the environment, and a new type of connection with the ocean.

Robots Taking Us to New Depths

In a mind-bending talk about cutting-edge technologies that are newly enabling access to the depths of our oceans, XPrize’s Executive Director of Planet and Environment, Dr Jyotika Virmani, and Stanford Robotics professor, Oussama Khatib gave a peek into how we are breaking boundaries in our ability to explore and learn about our oceans. Our oceans cover over 71% of our planet and provide 99% of its living space, but we have better maps of the moon than this watery and mysterious part of our world. This is changing rapidly and has far-reaching impacts on everything from pharmacology to mining to conservation. Their stories and work is both inspirational and fascinating.

Dr Virmani spoke specifically about XPrize’s “Discovering the Mysteries of the Deep”  challenge, where teams competed to rapidly develop solutions for unmanned exploration and mapping of the deep sea. Several important breakthroughs were achieved during the quest for the $7 million prize, including the first crossing of the Atlantic by an autonomous vessel. An affiliated ‘bonus prize’ was given to a technology for “detecting a chemical or biological signal underwater and autonomously tracking it to its source.”

Dr. Oussama Khatib recounted the difficulty in designing robots that can effectively operate remotely in the oceans’ organic environment and unpredictable conditions. The goal of their team was to design a robot that could recover treasure from an ancient wreck that was too deep for human divers. This required them to push the boundaries in robotics by developing a robot with a human-like sense of touch, and unique grasping capabilities, that could function and respond a completely unstructured environment.

Technology Alone will Not Solve Our Issues: Resilience Requires New Levels of Communication and Cooperation

This year’s CES had a full program track dedicated to Community Resilience, and I was interested to hear how they would reconcile the technologists’ dream of endless connectivity with the real-world issues of people, weather, and environment. While there was a big buzz around 5G at the conference, it is still on the horizon as countries and communities grapple with what it means to have access to endless data from connected sensors and systems distributed across wide and complex infrastructures and geographies.
The program included representatives from a wide variety of countries presenting the issues they face with increasing coastal flooding, extreme weather events, and large populations; communications executives discussing how they are planning contingencies for various types of weather events, each requiring its own custom response depending on type of event and location; and technologists discussing innovative infrastructure and communications solutions they are bringing to the table. One example of forward thinking that was presented is a phone-to-phone peer-to-peer local mesh network, which allows individuals in a local community to communicate directly with one another when cellular service is disabled.
Being able to achieve this type of ad hoc localized network requires citizens, non-profits, governments, and the private sector to work together in new and creative ways, which provides both an opportunity and a challenge. It is those communities and countries under the greatest threat–like the government of Bangladesh–that are driving and testing innovations like these: they cannot ignore the profound impacts of our changing climate and are already struggling to protect their citizens and their economies.
A couple of points I came away with:
  • Disaster recovery is extremely expensive: every $1 in infrastructure investment, saves $6 to $7 in disaster recovery.
  • Resilience cannot be ‘designed in’ as an afterthought: it has to be core to everything we build and deploy.
  • We need to improve our ability to communicate with one another about resilience and planning. We have to be willing to work together — individuals, businesses, non-profits, and government; if any one of these stakeholders doesn’t participate, all of us are made vulnerable. This was something both the presenters and the audience were passionate about.
  • Radios are still – and will be for a long while – critical in first response. Make sure you have one.

Two Other Intriguing New Technologies: Tapping Air for Water and Electricity

Finally, to leave you with some inspiration, I thought I’d give you a taste of the impossible: two remarkable startups at CES presented technologies able to extract key resources – clean water and electricity – from the air!

The first was Source by Zero Mass Water (www.zeromasswater.com). This company’s Hydropanels work in a self-contained system that harnesses solar energy to convert water vapor in air into clean drinking water. This technology promises an option to desalination, which is contributing to significant ocean acidification, and can be used either at huge scale or with single stand-alone panels. Imagine having a 3x5ft panel on your boat that is able to generate all your drinking water and requires no energy or mechanical pieces!

The other remarkable technology, “ambient energy harvesting” developed by the start-up Teratonix, is able to grab radio frequency electromagnetic energy in the air around us and use it to electrically power sensor arrays and other IoT. While it will be quite a while before this has application to consumers, Shell is now in a proof of concept phase with the company where they are using it to power all the sensor networks at one of their refineries. It’s the first project I’ve seen that recycles all the hidden by-products of our cell and WiFi signals, and with no wires, making it possible to install new monitoring systems in complex spaces easily and quickly. While this won’t likely be seen soon on individual boats, it certainly has promise for our coastal communities and a wide variety of other marine applications.

I hope you enjoyed this update. Please feel free to email me with your thoughts and comments.

Best wishes,

Anastasia – President, US Harbors