Geofencing the Arctic

by Joe Selmont  |   

Shawn Butler
Shawn Butler, assistant professor of computer science and computer systems engineering with the UAA College of Engineering, had a 20-year military career as the technical lead on the Global Command and Control System for the Department of Defense, and is putting her knowledge to help protect U.S. waters in the Arctic. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

 Geofencing the Arctic

Thousands of vessels, from enormous cargo ships to much smaller fishing boats, annually traverse the waters around Alaska — and that activity is only increasing as global warming causes arctic ice to melt at a rapid clip. But how does the United States government keep track of all those vessels, especially in remote areas along the state’s western and northern coasts?

“It’s not simple,” said Dr. Shawn Butler, an assistant professor of computer science and computer systems engineering with the UAA College of Engineering (CoEng). “But our goal is to make it simpler.”

To put it simply, the U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for protecting the waters that surround our nation, including in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, and there simply aren’t enough Coast Guard personnel to keep a direct watch over the 6,640 miles of Alaska coastline — so they rely on a variety of sophisticated monitoring tools that all feed into a unified system: CG OneView.

Command and control

CG OneView, along with other similar systems used by the U.S. Armed Forces, is what’s known as a command and control system, or a CC System for short.  Dr. Butler just so happens to be an expert on CC Systems, having spent the final decade of her 20 years of military service as the technical lead on the Global Command and Control System for the Department of Defense. 

A bull walrus resting on sea ice. (Photo courtesy Jeffrey Key, UAA Business Enterprise Institute)

 “What led me into my academic career was actually working on these systems for the military, with my growing frustration about the lack of a disciplined approach in how the software was designed,” she said. 

Dr. Butler and her team of undergrad students — with funding and support from the Arctic Domain Awareness Center, a Center of Excellence under the Department of Homeland Security that supports U.S. maritime activities — are now helping the Coast Guard to integrate a crucial tool into CG OneView. The tool, called geofencing, allows the Coast Guard to create a virtual perimeter around a real-world geographic area and then receive automatic alerts whenever a vessel crosses that perimeter. Importantly, any vessels that cross the invisible line also receive an alert that they’ve entered restricted waters.

“This matters for a lot of reasons,” said Dr. Butler. “There are areas that are always restricted, of course, and most captains know to avoid those. But say that an oil tanker becomes disabled in the Bering Strait. We can now create a geofence surrounding that tanker and automatically alert other ships to keep away. In an area with low visibility, this can be the difference between life and death. Both for the crews and for the ecosystem.”

Speaking of the ecosystem, another concern that has grown with the shrinking of arctic ice is the survival of the Pacific walrus, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has considered placing on the endangered species list. Over the last few decades, summer sea ice has retreated further and further north up the Chukchi Sea, leaving walruses with fewer options for hauling out of the water. The aquatic mammals must exit the ocean in order to give birth,  nurse their young and quite literally,  take a breather. But when they haul out onto Alaska’s coast at places like Point Lay, Cape Seniavin and Round Island, the walruses frequently lack enough space to comfortably fit all their enormous bodies.

“If a ship passes nearby, it might cause a stampede,” said Dr. Butler. “Which can lead to the deaths of young walruses. To prevent this, the Coast Guard can place a geofence around haul out locations and help to protect the species. The problem is that you don’t necessarily know where the walruses will haul out, so you need to be able to create these boundaries on the fly. Geofencing gives you that capability.”

How to build for change

This geofencing project is a perfect example of Dr. Butler’s overall approach to software design, which she sums up as building for change.

“Here’s a metaphor,” she said. “Let’s say you’re an expert in home expansions. Then you’ll neatly be able to tie in a new expansion into the plumbing, into the electrical. You’ll be able to figure out how the new roofing needs to connect. It’s the same for software integration. How do you make it so that the new ideas fit into the system without breaking the original software? And how do you design the original software so that you can add onto it or adapt it down the road? That’s building for change.”

 This  mindset is what  Dr. Butler tries to instill in her students. The last thing she wants is for a UAA graduate to enter the workforce and end up designing software that gets stuck in place. 

UAA B.S. in computer science senior Rachel Lewis, who works on the geofencing project with Dr. Butler, couldn’t agree more. 

“I just think it’s important in this field to be comfortable with learning new technologies in a fast-changing world,” Lewis said. “It’s a challenge to implement these new technologies in a way that works for the future, but it’s also super exciting. We have great ideas, great energy and we’ve already got some good work behind us. I can’t wait to see where this project goes.”

Dr. Butler believes that the geofencing project is vital on its merits alone, with potentially far-reaching ramifications for the health and safety of both humans and the marine ecosystem, but she also understands that the project is an opportunity to teach the next generation of computer scientists. 

“I love working with students,” she said. “It’s amazing to see the transformations that happen when students do work on a real-world project. Part of my job is to make sure that my students are prepared to enter the workforce. I want them to look back at their time at UAA and feel pride for everything they accomplished.”

In this way, Dr. Butler builds not only software for change. She also builds  the knowledge, skills and self-confidence of her students, giving them the necessary tools  to go into the world and become agents of change.

NOTE: The Arctic Domain Awareness Center (ADAC) is a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology (S&T) Office of University Programs (UP) Center of Excellence (COE) in Maritime Research, hosted by the University of Alaska. Most of ADAC’s management is located at UAA.

ADAC supports the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and other DHS maritime missions in order to improve capability for Arctic search and rescue, humanitarian assistance, disaster response, and security. This includes efforts to “enable the decision maker” across those mission sets. 

The objective of this project is to develop a geofence prototype that can both be relatively easy to integrate into CG OneView and meet the needs of the operators and planners who use CG OneView. The prototype will be functional and capable software innovation for integration into CG OneView either by USCG directly, or if/as desired, by the established contract CG OneView vendors to USCG. 

USCG watch-standers across Coast Guard command centers (using CG OneView) are the principal users of geofences. These watch-standers will, over time, create a number of geofences in support of various planning and operational needs. Accordingly, these USCG users will need a mechanism to find existing geofences, perhaps modify some of the geofence attributes, and reuse or create altered copies.

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