The Fleet of the Future: A Work in Progress

NOAA's Marine Operations Center operates NOAA ships, incorporates emerging data acquisition technologies, and provides a specialized professional team responsive to NOAA programs. As of early 2007, the NOAA ship fleet consists of 19 active ships, each equipped to support specific NOAA programs and activities, such as hydrographic surveying, oceanographic research, and fisheries science research.



Following Hurricane Katrina, the NOAA ship Nancy Foster was diverted from regularly scheduled activities to help survey port areas in Mobile, Alabama. Click image for larger view and complete caption.

Hurricane Katrina was a tragedy that brought out the best in NOAA, as the agency's components pulled together to respond to the disaster. It also served as a prime illustration of why NOAA needs to have multi-capable ships (or platforms) and expertise available on every coast for short-notice emergency response. Having a quick-response capability, however, is only one of many benefits of having a fleet of ships that can fulfill multiple missions at once. Herein lies the future of NOAA's fleet of ships.



A Multi-capable Fleet Supports a More Efficient NOAA

According to Rear Admiral Samuel P. De Bow, Jr., director of NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations and NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, NOAA and the nation can be better served each day if NOAA ships support integrated programs.

"My goal has been to turn the agency's 19 ships and 11 aircraft into one-NOAA assets with multiple capabilities, able to cost-effectively support more than a single program or activity at a time," De Bow said.

"Also, program needs for NOAA ships are increasing, so multi-mission ships should enable us to gather more data during each day at sea, thereby generating more bang for NOAA's buck during increasingly tight budget environments," De Bow added.

NOAA ships traditionally have been designed for fisheries, hydrographic surveying, or oceanographic operations. These activity-specific designs can restrict ships to serve only one purpose at a time.

It is necessary to some degree to have ships that are highly specialized and uniquely capable (i.e., there are often no commercial equivalents). Also, a certain number of days at sea are required to meet the objectives of programs within NOAA. However, if NOAA can equip ships to handle more than their primary operations, NOAA will be better prepared to "piggyback" projects as needs arise.

Two NOAA Ships Cross Boundaries

Some NOAA ships have already begun to cross boundaries and are ready and equipped to handle multiple activities.

Foster-hydro lab

The NOAA ship Nancy Foster was outfitted with sonar equipment and a hydrography processing lab so the ship could identify obstructions on the seafloor. This emergency action helped reopen the Mobile, Alabama port after Hurricane Katrina. Click image for larger view.

NOAA Ship Nancy Foster
The value of ships capable of carrying out multiple activities was illustrated when Nancy Foster, a coastal research ship, was quickly outfitted after Hurricane Katrina to conduct seafloor surveys. Under the command of an experienced hydrographer, Nancy Foster surveyed the approaches to Mobile, Alabama, for obstructions, helping to reopen the port to navigation. Soon thereafter, NOAA used the ship to study environmental damage to Gulf fisheries and contamination of the waters by oil and chemical spills. Nancy Foster also retrieved a lost weather data buoy.

These activities required cooperation across NOAA, and programs traded allocated days at sea for others' emerging disaster-related requirements. However, although the disaster response was a priority, all parties worked together to ensure NOAA's "regular" work also continued.

NOAA Ship Fairweather
The NOAA ship Fairweather is another example of platform versatility and responsiveness. Shortly after the ship had undergone a complete refurbishment that gave it multiple capabilities, the ship used its new equipment and technology beyond its usual nautical charting operations.

Fairweather-FOCI: Fisheries-Oceanography Coordinated Investigation cruise

This is NOT equipment normally found on a hydrographic survey ship! Scientists use a CTD (conductivity, temperature, and depth) instrument and bongo nets during a Fisheries-Oceanography Coordinated Investigation cruise. Click image for larger view.

First, Fairweather responded to an urgent request to recover a lost tsunami buoy. Then, it provided support to NOAA scientists conducting biological and oceanographic observations in the Gulf of Alaska. These diversions from the ship's primary mission required the use of newly added equipment and labs as well as a crew willing to learn new skills.

Fisheries Vessels

Today, NOAA is building a new class of NOAA fisheries survey vessels designed to support multiple missions and improve the efficiency of fisheries research. NOAA has also converted and outfitted eight former Navy ships with multi-mission equipment, making them more versatile than the older ships they replaced.

Future Challenges

Challenges remain in making the entire NOAA fleet "multi-mission" capable. Shared opportunities have to be identified and priorities determined, balancing mandated activities with emerging ones. Also, outfitting and maintaining platforms with additional data collection tools and emerging technologies requires funding and user training. NOAA managers must be flexible with sea days, especially when Mother Nature intervenes.


Bridging to the Fleet of Tomorrow

Rear Admiral De Bow holds a broader vision for the NOAA fleet.

"I see the Okeanos Explorer [a former Navy T-AGOS ship that is being converted to conduct ocean exploration] as breaking the mold for the way we do business in the future. The technology that is being poured onto this ship will connect it with shore-based virtual command centers from which the chief scientists can direct the cruise from land while overseeing the exploration expeditions via video links."

OE Command Center

Scientific command centers, as pictured, will enable scientists on shore to participate in research and discovery aboard Okeanos Explorer and, hopefully, other NOAA ships in the future. Click image for larger view.

"But what if we take this even further and equip each ship with ocean mapping technologies? We're missing opportunities all the time to map the ocean floor as we transit from port to port conducting our various research work. NASA has mapped every inch of the moon and Mars, yet only five percent of the Earth's ocean floor has been mapped. Fish habitats have been wiped out because trawling has destroyed the ocean floor, but we don't have any benchmarks of what they used to look like so they can be reestablished."

"Major obstructions are still missing from charts in Alaskan waters because the area is so vast our hydrographic survey ships can't keep up. Equipping the ships regardless of their primary function would require will, technology, and some additional costs. The main obstacles are having the manpower to operate the equipment on the ships, getting enough bandwidth to transmit the data to shore, and processing it. What if we had watch stations on the beach, with rotating shifts to process the data? We've never tried it, but it could be done with the right investments in resources."


We're Getting There . . .

Although NOAA ships have traditionally conducted one primary mission, new and converted platforms are being outfitted with more capabilities. This will allow greater flexibility to respond both to anticipated and unexpected data needs across NOAA. Today, some ships are already capable of taking on projects outside their primary missions. Future ships will be built to better support national and international observing networks, such as the Integrated Ocean Observing System and Global Earth Observing System of Systems.

The wave of the future may include ships modeled after Okeanos Explorer, where scientists will observe operations at sea from shore-based stations. Greater efficiency may be gained by equipping ships to conduct multiple tasks simultaneously, like mapping the ocean floor during cruises and transits, supplementing what can be accomplished by NOAA's few nautical charting ships.

The biggest challenge will be securing the funding and personnel to implement these ideas.but the day will surely come when NOAA and the nation can reap the rewards of far greater efficiencies and capabilities across the NOAA research and survey fleet.