Unmanned “Unplugged”

Shah Selbe, SoarOcean

Shah Selbe is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and the principal investigator of SoarOcean, which uses UAS for ocean conservation. He is also the creator of FishNET, a platform that uses technology to detect and track illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing worldwide, and is the Southern California region representative of Engineers Without Borders.

You were recognized by the National Geographic Society as one of 17 Emerging Explorers  — people expanding the boundaries of what it means to discover new things. How do UAS change the way we explore the world?

We are at an exciting time right now where the current limitations we have on the amount of information we can gather about our world are about to largely disappear. UAS will change the way we explore by allowing us to gather data more cheaply, safely and with a greater frequency than we are able to do with our traditional methods. Just look at our oceans for example. One of the most dangerous things that marine biologists and ocean conservationists do is get in small aircraft to gather data about what is going on in our oceans. But without those flights, we would lack important data to make decisions about the future of our oceans.

In what ways can these capabilities be used by researchers? What is possible now that would have been impossible without these tools?

Through relying on UAS to gather this data for us, we can drastically reduce the risk and cost. This can, in turn, allow us to increase the amount and type of flights that are possible. As payload capacity and flight durations increase, these will become more capable replacements for current manned flights. Without the risk to human life, we can fly these in conditions that would ground manned planes and with a greater frequency that was previously limited by pilot fatigue. It will completely change the way we gather this information.

You are the creator of FishNET, a project developed while you were at Stanford University.  Describe how FishNET works and what it can achieve.

The basic purpose is to bring recent advances in technology and open-source development to how we watch over our oceans and handle the associated data. The global community keeps increasing the portion of the ocean that we protect in marine reserves, which is important to the health of our oceans and fisheries. Unfortunately, we currently rely on the same old ways to watch over those areas. My ocean conservation engineering efforts seek to do things smarter and make better use of technology to ensure that these areas are protected, particularly with the economic constraints we have since the global recession. FishNET, and all the projects that have come from that  SoarOcean, MPA Guardian, ultraVMS and so on  are all elements of that vision.

What does this database tell us about the state of the ocean and fisheries?

When looking at the fishing activity that is going on in our oceans, the information we currently have is chronically incomplete and packed away in incompatible databases. This is important because fishing activity is one of the best indicators of the health of our ocean ecosystems. We can’t look out our oceans and count the number of bluefin tuna remaining as easily as we can with land animals like the black rhino or chimpanzee. However, we can infer the health of our oceans based on understanding of fisheries catch data and the best science we have out there. So it is really important that we get a good idea of what is happening out there in our water, both legitimate fishing activity and illegal fishing and overfishing.

What were your most surprising discoveries about the ocean environment and fishing?

The most surprising discovery is how little we know about what is going on out in our oceans. With the exception of the wealthiest countries like the United States, most coastal waters and the high seas operate almost like the Wild West. This is bad news for our oceans. We have seen the impact that overfishing and illegal fishing has had on our marine ecosystems all over the world. Seafood is humanity’s last truly wild food source and, without really understanding how much we are taking out of the oceans, we risk irreversibly ruining this planet. This lack of knowledge does not have to be the case.

How can unmanned vehicles help provide continual updates about remote ecosystems?

Unmanned vehicles can provide us the capacity we need to have more up-to-date observations of remote ecosystems. The costs associated with fueling and operating traditional manned boats and planes are the limiting factors in our ability to regularly watch over them. Additionally, the lack of data on the true size of this problem makes getting more resources very difficult. Unmanned vehicles can give us these capabilities much more easily, especially as UAS costs decrease and the technology improves.

You consulted with the Pew Environmental Group to identify current and future technologies that could be used or repurposed to help stop illegal fishing and overfishing. What role do you think UAS will have in the field?

I have worked with plenty of nonprofits and governments on this issue. I help identify technologies that fit within their mission and resource constraints. When looking at the areas in need of protection, there is a recurring realization that UAS could meet the needs at lower costs than current aerial efforts. I have always been a believer in UAS as a means to supplement the Coast Guard’s mission. Much of the previous marine testing have been using military-class UAS. I think there is potential to do this with cheaper vehicles and I think that we will see more and more of that as time progresses.

Increasing quality of life use using new technologies in the developing world has been a big part of your career. What are some of the challenges you have encountered?

The biggest challenges I have encountered are with people’s preconceived notions on technology and the costs associated with technology development. Thanks to open-source efforts and the maker movement, the costs associated with the technological development process have come way down. Many of these technological solutions can be implemented for much cheaper than was done previously. We do not have to rely on expensive proprietary engineering solutions when appropriate open-source technologies can get us where we need to be. Using appropriate technologies also allows the solutions to be maintained and repaired more easily than if they were proprietary. So I have made it a bit of a mission of mine to try and disrupt these traditional ocean conservation approaches, just like DIYDrones has done it to unmanned technology or OpenROV has done to ocean exploration.

How can UAS help connect people in places without existing infrastructure?

The great thing about small UAS is the ability for these to be hand launched and versatile in just about any environment. A big part of the research that the SoarOcean project is doing is to identify how to operate these things without a reliance on large-scale infrastructure like we have here in the United States. The barriers to entry for operation of UAS are much lower than any other type of aerial support. I feel that as this industry develops around commercial efforts, we will see a framework to develop around how to connect people through UAS more safely and easily than other methods. We should take advantage of this for conservation.

As someone who spends a great deal of time developing new technologies in the field, how do you see unmanned vehicles evolving? What new roles can they play in the future? 

I see the unmanned vehicle market maturing more in the middle range, where we evolve past having either expensive platforms or hobbyist hardware. There seems to be a huge demand for a mid-market segment that will grow as commercial operations increase. There also needs to be more work in increasing the safety and resilience of these systems as they enter the commercial airspace. This technology has the opportunity to become a part of our daily lives, but work needs to be done to make sure that privacy protections, safety and robustness are built into future platforms.