A greener boat for Orange
In the quaint French town of La Seyne sur Mer, sits Orange Marine’s brand-new cable-laying vessel, Sophie Germain.
As launched last Friday, Orange Marine’s new ship aims to provide “efficient and sustainable global connectivity” with the help of automation technology, a more sustainable hybrid engine, and its new robot, Alpha.
Submarine cables carry 99% of intercontinental telephone and data communications, and the quantity of data passing through the networks of telecom operators has multiplied by ten worldwide in the last five years.
With this, it is up to these cable-laying vessels, of which Orange Marine owns 15% of the global cable-laying fleet, to survey, repair, maintain, and of course lay the cables connecting the globe under the sea.
“Connectivity has become absolutely critical in our societies, and as an operator, we must respond simultaneously to traffic growth and new demands of our customers,” said Orange Group CEO Christel Heydemann, in her inauguration speech for Sophie Germain’s launch.
“Like the daring mathematician from whom it takes its name, the Sophie Germain is a pioneering ship: it anchors our submarine cable activity in a new era to meet the great challenges of our time,” she added.
Covering the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Black Sea, Orange’s new high-tech vessel has been designed to replace its retiring vessel of 40 years and stay in service itself for the next 40 to support fibre optic cables and electrical connection cables for offshore wind turbines.
The subsea cables are essential for big tech firms, because, while in 2010, Google, Apple, Meta, Amazon and Microsoft didn’t own any network infrastructure in the Atlantic, their rapid growth over the years has forced them to invest in such infrastructure to keep up with the online traffic.
By 2019, those big tech companies controlled 50% of submarine cables and 70% in joint investments.
“In this complex environment, where Google, Apple, Meta, Amazon, and Microsoft are at the same time our competitors, our customers, our major partners, and aced with our limited financing capacities, Orange has chosen to continue its partnership with all players in the sector,” said Heydemann.
Enhanced capacity will not only help with increased internet traffic and data flow on these sites, but also with the rapid growth of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence.
Geopolitical factors also mean that submarine cables risk being cut off in conflicts such as the Russia and Ukraine war:
“Even more, controlling underwater infrastructure has become an issue of sovereignty expressed by the territories as access to global connectivity, which relies on underwater infrastructures, has become critical,” notes Heydemann.
Cables can be damaged and severed for several reasons, whether it be fishermen, a technical failure, or in rare cases, bitten by sharks.
So, to reach and deal with damaged or severed submarine cables, the ship’s crew will use a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV), driven from a control room through an ‘umbilical cord’.
“The advanced technology of the Sophie Germain will make it possible to respond to these challenges with increased efficiency: through the speed and reliability of its marine thrusters, but also through the power of its cable inspection robot (ROV),” explained Heydemann.
The Sophie Germain vessel itself can be switched to autopilot to find any faults using a theoretical route of the cables in Orange Marine’s data room.
“We keep a database with the positions of the cables in the area,” explained Didier Dillard, CEO of Orange Marine, “and whenever there is a fault, we are given the estimate of the position, and we deploy the ROV and the ROV looks for the cable.”
Once the ship has tracked the cable using automatic positioning and GPS technology, the ROV, which is a robotic machine, can be plunged as far as 3,000 metres down into the sea to find the cable.
“Sometimes the cable is right there, sometimes it’s not, so the ROV is equipped with a metal detector that can find the cable to maintain or fix,” explains Dillard.
Then, the robot, named Alpha, and designed by Orange Marine’s subsea vehicle department SIMEC Technologies, can dig as deep as three metres below the seabed so that the control room, which can see everything through cameras attached to the robot, can inspect, and bury the cables.
“Faced with the explosion of uses, we must also take up the challenge of sustainability in our economic model as well as in our environmental commitments,” Heydemann noted in her speech.
According to Orange Marine, the Sophie Germain is labelled a ‘CLEANSHIP’ classification due to its sustainable waste management, and the French telco hails its upgrade in sustainability on its hybrid engines.
The hybrid engine system means that the vessel is powered both by diesel engines and battery-powered engines, cutting emissions down by 22%.
“I think the engines are very state-of-the-art for different things,” says Dillard.
While the diesel engine will drive the vessel, the battery-powered engines can be turned on during a cable operation.
“During a cable operation, the vessel needs to maintain the same position for more than 24 hours,” explains Dillard.
“So, we take advantage of the new technology of the batteries, which are getting better every year.”
In fair weather, the vessel will only need to use one battery-powered engine during the cable operation, helping cut fuel consumption down to 25% – which Orange claims are lower than the average for cable manufacturers.
Thus, customers and partners, such as Google and Meta, which will use the Sophie Germain to maintain their cables, will find their own indirect (Scope 1 or 3) emissions cut down too.
“The Sophie Germain is a symbol that cutting-edge technology can serve sustainability,” said Heydemann, “[and] that the success of underwater collaborations must reflect regional and transnational balances, to guarantee our common objective of offering connectivity that benefits everyone: operators, customers, and territories and states.”
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