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Submarine Cable Condition Monitoring in a World of Evolving Threats

Recently, the world of submarine cables hit the headlines, as a crucial subsea cable link between the Shetland Islands and the UK mainland was cut. Islanders found themselves without any access to landline, internet and even some mobile services. a major incident was declared, as engineers rushed to source and repair the damage, and police patrolled the island to reassure residents that the situation was being dealt with.

The UK Government has since confirmed that this incident was the result of accidental damage by a UK-registered trawler, and that an investigation has been launched. Indeed, when it comes to monitoring threats to subsea cables, our previous blog explains that fishing trawlers account for up to 70% of submarine cable damage. But, as Energy Industry Review points out, submarine cable risks and security threats are evolving all the time. Subsea cables account for 99% of internet transmission, the report confirms, as well as playing a crucial part in transporting renewable offshore energy. As such, they represent invaluable economic, social, and political collateral. So, in today’s volatile, complex global environment, they are acutely vulnerable to malicious, as well as accidental, attack. In this context, the role of subsea cable condition monitoring extends beyond being an important commercial strategy. It is fast becoming a crucial socio-political concern.

What are the Most Pressing Threats to Submarine Cables?

The impact of the Shetland cable outage gives us a glimpse of the fallout that could occur if submarine cables fall victim to a malicious attack. In fact, as the aforementioned Energy Industry Review report points out, targeting cabling infrastructure as a tactical act of war is nothing new.  As early as 1898, the US completely cut Manila in the Philippines off from the rest of the world during the Spanish American war – by severing a major cable connection. Subsea cable cutting was also a tactic during the first and second world wars. What’s more, since 2014, there has been increasing concern around the risk of subsea cable espionage, via specially equipped submarines capable of intercepting, disrupting and even modifying the vast quantities of data that flow through these fibre optic cables.

Cable infrastructure monitoring is not just about preserving internet uptime, though. Moving closer to shore, submarine export cables are a key component in the renewable energy supply chain - since they are responsible for transporting precious offshore wind energy to land. And, as the world grapples with the challenge of tackling climate change, ambitions for renewable energy are quite rightly growing. In October 2022, for example, plans were announced to lay a major new subsea cable to bring wind and solar power from Egypt to Europe. The 700 MW cable will be deployed at a maximum sea depth of 2,527 metres, adding to an already staggering network of more than 1.3 million kilometres of cables that run under the earth’s oceans. Not only do subsea cables connect us, they power our modern way of living, and they have a vital role to play in green energy mix. This makes the challenge of effective cable condition monitoring in extreme, hard to reach conditions an urgent and compelling one.

DAS Subsea Cable Monitoring with the Power to Detect within Minutes and Metres

DAS (Distributed Acoustic Sensing) is coming to the fore as a powerful, intelligent strategy to monitor subsea cables remotely, twenty-four hours a day. Thousands of pulses of light are sent along the fibre optic cable every second. Some of that light is reflected back to the monitoring unit, and any disturbances to vibrations around the cable correspond to disturbances in those light patterns. Effectively, the fibre optic cable becomes its own sensor. In the case of both subsea cables and other crucial infrastructure in remote or hard to reach locations (such as oil, gas, and water pipelines), the advantages are clear. Because disturbances are reported instantly, automatically and accurately, even deep subsea locations do not present a barrier to consistent cable condition monitoring.

Not all DAS systems are equal, though. What differentiates good from great when it comes to cable monitoring is not just the quality of the sensing itself. It is the accuracy of analysis and immediacy of reporting that really matters. In the case of LiveDETECT II® by Fotech Solutions, the application of advanced AI, machine learning and edge computing capabilities does not just enable 24/7 automated monitoring. It also drives real-time analysis of every possible disturbance according to its unique acoustic signature, analyses the likely nature of the threat, pinpoints the location to within just metres, and report only genuine threats to cable networks in real time.

This is evidenced in our Subsea Cable Fault Case Study, which demonstrates the real value of LiveDETECT II® in the field (or, in this case, under the ocean!). When our client – a cable operator for an offshore wind farm – suspected a cable fault, they deployed our Helios® DAS technology suite to pinpoint the precise location of the problem within less than a metre. This enabled the operator to direct divers along the cable so that they could rapidly locate the fault and mark a cable cutting area of just 3.5 metres – allowing the repair to be carried out quickly, and without the need to add a new section of cable. The speed of response enabled the repair to take place before several weeks of bad weather then hit - saving the operator potentially millions of pounds in the downtime that bad weather would have caused by delaying a safe repair operation.

Read the Full Subsea Cable Faults Case Study

The potential of DAS submarine cable monitoring to safeguard connectivity and renewable energy supply is clear to see. In an uncertain world, this much is certain: as a society, our reliance on these vast networks of cables will only increase – in turn making the potential impact of major outages even more serious. Thankfully, DAS cable monitoring is evolving even as threats to subsea cables grow more sophisticated. Now is the time for cable operators to look ahead and ensure that their subsea cable monitoring strategies harness all the power of tomorrow’s technology to ensure that connectivity uptime is protected, and to maximise opportunities for renewable energy sector growth.

More on monitoring subsea cable infrastructure

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