More than 90% of the world’s trade is carried by sea, according to the International Maritime Organization. Therefore, accurate and up-to-date charts of coastal waters for ship navigation are vital for world commerce. The current expansion of the Panama Canal, which will double its capacity and allow larger ships to transit, is further increasing the need for depth data—as ports compete for the ability to accommodate the new “Panamax” ships being built to take advantage of the canal’s enhanced dimensions.
Population growth in coastal areas and sea level rise due to climate change are driving the need for bathymetric data for planning and emergency management. The advent of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has accelerated the ongoing effort to miniaturize bathymetric sensors by reducing their size, weight, and power (SWAP) requirements. These factors, in addition to technological advances in the sensors’ hardware and software, are bringing new tools to the ancient science of bathymetry.
For centuries, mariners recorded water depth using nothing more than a lead line of sufficient length, a compass, a sextant, and a rudimentary nautical chart. This was such a time-consuming process, however, that they could only perform it for a tiny percentage of the world’s oceans and coastlines. Today’s technology makes the process not only more accurate, but vastly more efficient as well.