Member Profile: David R. Strachan
Founder and Senior Analyst of Strikepod Systems –
MTS: Tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where did you attend school (grad/undergrad/etc.)? Were you always interested in the marine sciences?
David Strachan (DS): I was born in Nutley, New Jersey, a busy suburb of New York City, where I lived until the end of second grade. After a six year stint in Indianapolis, I found myself back in the Garden State, this time in the sleepy, rural hamlet and M&M capital of the world (really!) of Hackettstown. Growing up I spent many summers vacationing on Cape Cod where my grandparents had built a house in East Dennis, so from a very young age the ocean has captured my imagination. I read everything I could about sharks and whales and life at sea. One of my favorite books as a child was Captain Sintar – the story of a young boy’s (mis)adventures when he is rescued from the sea by a “sinister ship” of “blackhearted scoundrels.” (I recently tracked down an ancient copy of it, complete with checkout card stamped “1974.”) I loved whale watching, taking the Dolphin III out of Provincetown with Dr. Stormy Mayo providing the play-by-play from the observation deck. By sixth grade I had it all figured out. I was going to be a marine biologist and work for the Center for Coastal Studies, or maybe Woods Hole. Alas, that never quite came to be, but my love for the ocean and passion for all things maritime has never wavered, and with my dad being a Navy vet, and having heard his stories of 1950s Cold War intelligence operations, I suppose it’s only natural that I would be drawn to writing about the sea and naval affairs.
MTS: Who were some of the most important mentors during your career?
DS: Not a mentor so much as an inspiration, but Jacques Cousteau for sure. I remember watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” as a child, checking his books out of the library, poring over the adventures of Calypso and its “diving saucer,” and the crew’s encounters with sharks and whales and all manner of exotic creatures. Cousteau actually spoke at my college commencement, and I was able to shake his hand, which was a huge honor for me. I still remember the first words of his address: “We have failed.” He prevailed upon us to do better than his generation, to be better stewards of the environment. (I can only imagine what the opening words of his address might be today.) One of my sixth grade teachers – Mr. Rogers – was also influential in inspiring my love of the sea, and I still have the oceanography book he gave me as a gift, inscribed with his encouraging words. I’m also grateful for the people and organizations who continue to support and amplify my work, such as Steve Hall from the Society for Underwater Technology (SUT), JD Work from Marine Corps University, Dr. Nina Kollars from the Naval War College, and the people at the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).
MTS: What are the technologies that you feel will be most transformative for undersea operations?
DS: As an analyst focused on undersea systems, I’m particularly interested in how increasingly advanced technologies will come to influence events in the undersea domain, and their implications for naval operations and maritime security. It’s my job is to understand the technologies and provide a context for policy and defense communities, to identify the trends, the opportunities and threats they pose, and their role as drivers in the evolution of maritime affairs. I think the technologies that are poised to transform undersea operations are those related to communications, energy, and autonomy.
There will be a high demand for robust, high-bandwidth underwater communications, and in the case of naval and maritime security organizations, covert communications. Energy density will be critical to ensure persistence when engaging in operations such as ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance), ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare), and Mine Countermeasures (MCM). Autonomy will be critical as well, given that uncrewed underwater vehicles will be operating in challenging, dangerous, and often communication-denied environments. Systems that can make decisions based on changes in the environment, evade detection or capture, or re-task in response to new tactical information, will be critical. And while not a marine technology per se, serious consideration must be given to the cyber implications of operating in the undersea domain. Cybersecurity in the maritime domain generally is an area of great concern, and we’ve already seen, with Maersk’s encounter with NotPetya, how devastating a maritime cyber attack can be. Increasing communications and data transfer operations via the Internet of Underwater Things (IoUT) will pose a similar security dilemma, effectively enlarging the “attack surface” of those entities operating in the undersea domain, and posing a range of new attack vectors for malicious actors.
MTS: What do you feel are some of the great untold stories in the realm of marine technology?
DS: Though perhaps more under-told than untold (there is surely more than what’s been revealed), stories like International Submarine Engineering’s Theseus AUV and its role in Arctic cable-laying during the early post-Cold War period. Or the role of marine technology in Cold War espionage, such as Operation Ivy Bells and the deployment of special underwater vehicles and cable tapping technologies to gather intelligence on the Soviet Navy, one of the greatest U.S. intelligence successes of the Cold War. Or Project Azorian – the ambitious CIA plan to recover a sunken Soviet submarine from the bottom of the Pacific using a custom-made ship and mechanical claw. The truly untold stories are the ones unfolding beneath the waves as I write this, onboard such platforms as the USS Jimmy Carter, a special-purpose Seawolf-class attack submarine with a 100 foot supplemental hull section that houses advanced ROVs and other technologies used deploy sensors, examine seabed infrastructure, and recover foreign weapons technologies from the seabed. Or onboard any one of Russia’s several special purpose submarines and small submersibles comprising its “other Navy,” the Main Directorate of Deep Sea Research (GUGI). Or on the bottom of the South China Sea, where China’s Blue Ocean Network or its rumored “Underwater Great Wall” leverage a network of sensors, energy depots, and data transfer nodes to monitor environmental conditions as well as the comings and goings of unwanted guests.
MTS: What advice might you give to those starting out in ocean science and engineering?
One of the most inspiring things for me has been attending tech showcases and entrepreneur forums and hearing from young people who are starting off in the field. The energy and the enthusiasm that they bring is absolutely inspiring. There are big problems in need of solving – climate change, clean energy, conservation, environmental protection, maritime security – and we will need bright, driven people steeped in science and engineering to solve them. But we will also need people who aren’t afraid to dream, to imagine possibilities, to explore crazy ideas, to take risks and to fail hard. Don’t be afraid to change the world, because, as Mr. Jobs says, “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
MTS: What technologies most excite/interest you currently in the fields of ocean science and engineering?
DS: I’m particularly interested in the emerging “Internet of Underwater Things,” and how this will transform undersea operations, from science and industry, to naval operations and maritime security. I’m excited by the potential for marine technologies to protect whales from ship strikes, particularly the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. And I’m also very excited about the integration of marine technology into space exploration – deploying AUVs beneath the icy shells of Europa and other ocean moons to search for indications of extraterrestrial life.
MTS: What does MTS need to do to ensure that it remains vital, growing, and relevant in the future?
Perhaps MTS might explore the development of programs and scholarships that specifically seek to foster interest in marine technology among women and the BIPOC community. MTS might consider partnerships with organizations like Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, or Desert WAVE, an all-women collegiate AUV team, or BIPOC professional organizations in order to amplify the work and accomplishments of BIPOC engineers and scientists working in marine technology.
And In addition to its partnership with SUT, perhaps MTS might consider partnering with an organization like the Planetary Society to bring a different perspective to the MTS mission, to acknowledge and highlight the synergies between deep sea and deep space exploration. With the planned exploration of Europa, and the potential for exploration of other ocean moons and worlds beyond our solar system, there may one day be a need for marine technologists to look beyond the confines of our Earthly oceans.