I Use My Mac For Mapping the Seabed

Name: André Cocuccio
Occupation: Hydrographer, marine geoscientist, writer
Location: Southampton, Hampshire
Systems: 13-inch Macbook Air, 17-inch iMac, Mac mini
URLs: andrecocuccio.co.uk, mcga.gov.uk/hydrography

• What Apple gear do you use?

I’ve owned a few Macs since making the switch from PCs back in 2007. My pride and joy has to be my mid-2011 Macbook Air, which goes absolutely everywhere with me. Purchased for both personal and professional use, I plumped for a built-to-order 1.8Ghz i7 model with a 256 GB SSD and 4GB of ram. Being fast, light and capable of dealing with anything I throw at it makes this is my ideal mobile workstation.

At home, we’re still using the Macs I bought when I first made the move to OS X. A customised 7-year old Mac Mini forms the centre of our home digital media centre, while a 2007 17” white iMac is our family computer, suitable for big and small hands alike. Both are now a little long in the tooth and I’ve just bought an Apple TV to replace the Mac Mini. I’m hoping to replace the iMac later this year with Apple’s latest offering.

The three applications that currently get most screen time are Aperture, Word for Mac and iWeb. Although almost defunct, iWeb still remains a deceptively simple yet powerful web authoring package and one that I’ve found hard to beat. Word for Mac is a must-have for ensuring Office document cross-compatibility between Windows and OS X. And finally, Aperture is the hub of my family’s photographic world. I find it hugely intuitive for editing, organising and sharing photos – it provides me with all the freedom I need to work with my photos the way I want to.

• Tell us about the UK Civil Hydrography Programme.

The UK Civil Hydrography Programme (CHP) is the seabed survey and mapping programme I lead and run from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in Southampton. Hydrography is the science of mapping the seabed to improve safety of navigation at sea. The CHP is the UK’s national hydrographic survey and is responsible for surveying and mapping UK waters for the update of nautical charts. Nautical charts are the road-maps of our seas and need to be kept up-to-date in order to ensure the safe and efficient passage of boats and ships around our dynamic coastline.

Under the CHP, a rolling programme of seabed surveys are conducted around the British Isles by a fleet of survey vessels equipped with state-of-the-art high resolution multibeam echosounder (MBES) technology. MBES maps the seabed by simultaneously emitting hundreds of acoustic beams beneath the survey vessel whilst onboard computers ‘listen’ for and record the return echoes or ‘soundings’ to be reflected back from the seabed. As the vessel continues along a pre-defined survey plan, the MBES system compiles and stores all the soundings it receives. Once completed, the compiled soundings or ‘bathymetry’ can be processed to produce highly detailed 3D maps that allow for the depth, shape and composition of the seabed to be analysed. Furthermore, MBES technology also allows for objects and features on the seabed to be located and mapped in detail.

Once the survey has completed and the bathymetric data has been processed and mapped, it is sent through to the UK Hydrographic Office to be included on British Admiralty Charts.

• How long have you been involved in mapping the seabed?

I’m lucky enough to have worked in marine survey and seabed mapping for a little over 10 years now. In that time, I’ve worked as a marine geophysicist, a geo-survey manager and now a programme director. I have no idea how much of the seabed I’m personally responsible for mapping, but since the late 1980s, the CHP alone has surveyed and mapped around 30% of UK waters. Putting this into context, less than 5% of the World’s oceans are currently explored.

• How do you use your Mac with regards to mapping the seabed?

Macs don’t tend to feature in seabed data acquisition, but they are used for data processing, visualization and interpretation, as well as other ancillary and admin tasks. The main piece of software I use for this on my Macbook Air is Fledermaus by QPS. Fledermaus is a cross-platform 3D visualisation and data analysis package and is just one of a suite of products that my team and I use to process and review bathymetric data collected under the CHP.

Each survey typically acquires terabytes (!) of depth and positioning data, all of which requires cleaning, correcting and checking to ensure that specified standards for data integrity and quality have been met. Using Fledermaus, Macs can also be used to visualize and map the data, allowing for objects and features to be measured, seabed geology to be classified and images and video-fly-throughs of seabed landscapes and shipwrecks to be created !

• What advantage is there in mapping the seabed?

Hydrographic survey underpins all activity at sea. In surveying the seabed for nautical charting, hydrographers are unlocking an underwater world that relatively little is known about. Whether you’re involved in construction, engineering, environmental monitoring, fisheries, geology, oceanography, renewable energy or seabed resources (phew !), having a map of your area of interest and knowing what’s there is critical in understanding the environment in which you’re planning to operate, whether you’re at the surface or below it.

What makes CHP data so valuable is that in collecting seamless, high resolution, three-dimensional, full coverage seabed mapping data for nautical charts, modern hydrographers are for the first time creating products that have mass-appeal across all of the marine sectors listed above under a ‘gather once, use many times’ ethos. This is the first time we’re seeing this in UK marine science and it’s principally due to the inception of MBES technology and the move within Government to make interoperable data of this nature freely available to all. This AND it also updates the safety critical nautical charts that delineate our national maritime transport network and support the safety of mariners and ships within the UK shipping industry.

• I believe the CHP has found previously-unknown shipwrecks in the past. 

One of the key requirements of the CHP is to locate and investigate objects and features present on the seabed – this includes shipwrecks. Any object standing proud of the seabed has the potential to be hazardous to sea-users. Shipwrecks can be particularly dangerous, especially in shallow water. Consequently the location and depth of obstructions and wrecks discovered by the CHP are included directly on nautical charts.

For every shipwreck located during CHP survey operations, a focused MBES investigation is conducted that sweeps the wreck and its surrounding debris-field in order to assess the condition and depth of the vessel and its local topography. This frequently results in locating previously unknown wrecks. The greatest number of uncharted wrecks ever located during one survey was from a 2011 survey off the North Devon and Cornish Coasts, where 70 unknown shipwrecks were located in a previously unsurveyed area.

• How has the task of mapping the seabed changed over the years?

The way in which we map the seabed hasn’t significantly changed in the last 10 years. However, the technology underpinning it has seen a quantum leap in its application and capability.

Following an initial shift from analogue to digital acquisition systems, the mainstream introduction of MBES technology resulted in a step-change increase in the volume and resolution of seabed mapping data that could be acquired from a survey vessel. For the first time, full seabed coverage could be achieved as a seamless, high resolution quantitative dataset – something that hadn’t previously been possible using earlier data acquisition systems.

The rapid increase in consumer computing power over recent years has ensured that hydrographers and marine specialists have retained the computing horsepower required to work with these larger, denser datasets. In turn, developments in 3D graphics have seen a transition to the processing, manipulating and rendering of this data as a 3D visualisation. This is now the norm along with ship and shore based server solutions to archive and store the sheer amount of data being generated.

Indeed, long gone are the days of pawing over rolls of analogue side scan sonar data and mapping the information by hand. Instead, the processing, interpretation and mapping of digital seabed data is now carried out workstations. Similarly, where outputs from these surveys were once A0 paper charts, now they’re digital geographic information system (GIS) data deliverables.

• Why a Mac and not a PC?

Well, I have to use both – other software packages that I use are Windows only affairs. OS X, however, is my preferred computing environment and I tend to auto default to my Macbook Air whenever I can – particularly when I’m working from home or when I’m away from the office.

Bitter experience has taught me that nothing can beat the cast-iron reliability of a Mac. That combined with the sheer ease of use and intuitive nature of OS X has me hooked. Generally, I find that Macs offer superior performance, which is a premium in my line of work. I’m more productive with a Mac than a PC – the vast majority of what I do gets done faster and to a higher quality, with less wastage. This is ideal (and less frustrating) for someone like myself who seemingly has less and less time to get things done!

• Do you use your Macs for personal as well as professional purposes?

I’ve unashamedly bought into the Apple ecosystem, so Macs underpin my digital life. All my music is purchased through iTunes as are my movie rentals. The vast majority of my software is bought through the Mac App Store.

Occasionally I find the time to write for magazines and newspapers. These articles and columns are all written on my Macbook Air, which I find hugely satisfying. One day I might decide to try and write a book.

Over the last year I’ve turned my hand to web design and built my own web-based portfolio. Its something I’ve wanted to do for several years and I’m pleased with the results. The whole site has been authored in iWeb and although Apple is no longer supporting it, I’ve found iWeb does everything I need despite its occasional idiosyncrasies. I’ve trialled a number of other Mac-based web authoring packages, but none felt that they offered the same level of design freedom or ease that I was looking for.