May 17, 2022

The digital revolution has a physical foundation: undersea cables. When you email someone in another country, send money internationally, or watch news from abroad, the data travels underwater. 95% of the world’s international data traffic runs through fibre-optic cables across ocean floors.

Planning how and where to deploy these cables presents many challenges. Firstly, the costs and complexity mean it’s vital to get it right first time; planners can’t afford to make changes after cables are laid. The use of automated planning tools not only supports accuracy, but also accelerates a planning process that takes months when handled by humans, because human error is not an option.

The planning process is labour-intensive as well as time-consuming, demanding careful analysis of physical issues, the needs of people and ecosystems along the route, and more. Planners need to handle changes to their working plan manually, taking further time and effort.

Some of these challenges can be overcome by automating subsea cable route planning and optimisation. Software’s ability to crunch data exceeds humans’, meaning it can be an invaluable ally in identifying the optimal route and process for laying cables.

A tough environment

The undersea landscape has mountains, storms, frozen winters, strong tidal waves, and shifting tides. Add human activity and geopolitical activity to the mix, and it’s an incredibly complex and challenging picture. Time, money and expertise are vital to collect accurate data, carry out precise risk assessments and determine the best route.

The next challenge is laying the cable itself. This calls for a small fleet of ships, from surveying vessels to cable-laying ships that use specialised technology to bury cables under the seabed. In some areas, relatively fragile cables must be laid at a depth of four miles.

Installing thousands of miles of cables is a slow, sustained effort, with simply loading the cables onto ships taking a significant amount of time. It takes engineering skills and heavy machinery to lay cables accurately and precisely at a speed of up to 200 kilometers per day.

And the work continues after the installation. In theory, submarine cables can last 25 years, but the reality of erosion, saltwater intrusion, landslides, earthquakes, and accidental or even malicious human interference means they often need early retirement. 150-200 cable faults are detected worldwide each year. Planners need to consider all these complications to develop the fastest, most cost-effective and reliable deployment plan to make sure the cables last.

Getting it right first time

It’s these challenges, and the costs of meeting them, that make it imperative for planners to get it right first time. One way to achieve this is with an automated tool that uses machine learning to determine the best possible undersea routes. Crunching data on undersea topography, weather forecasts, natural disaster risks, existing cables and pipes nearby, marine heritage areas, and geo-political instability enables AI tools to understand the threat landscape and replace time-consuming manual route planning.

Planners can also use AI and machine learning to avoid subsea cable damage. Analytics solutions use advanced heuristics to continuously monitor installed cables and flag potential hazards before damage is done.

The importance of undersea cables cannot be overstated–not only do they connect people and nations, they also help to drive the global economy. As the world becomes more reliant on data, it’s becoming increasingly clear that data-driven tools are needed to keep these vital infrastructures safe.