Earth-based geomagnetic measurements are already performed around the world today — but could automating terrestrial and seafloor data collection create a more sustainable and scalable operation? That’s the question the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium (RMI) is asking as they compete against four other teams in Phase 3 of MagQuest. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s $2.1 million global open innovation challenge seeks to advance how we measure Earth’s magnetic field for the World Magnetic Model (WMM).

RMI’s solution proposes using an international network of over 100 automated magnetic observatories on land and the seafloor. To boost their team’s expertise in seafloor observatories during the critical Phase 3, RMI has partnered with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

We spoke with RMI’s François Humbled about partnering in Phase 3, homing in on Earth-based data collection, and planning for future development.

What inspired you to enter MagQuest and address how we collect geomagnetic data for the WMM?
We knew about the WMM, as RMI operates magnetic observatories and develops related geomagnetic instruments. Inspiration came immediately when we read about MagQuest. We realized we could leverage our existing magnetic field expertise and further develop and improve the automatic magnetic observatory.

Over the course of the competition, we invited WHOI to join us, as we needed a partner to deploy and operate our solution on the seafloor. WHOI provides subject matter expertise in oceanic research, magnetic field measurements, and sea-based operations. It was also one of the organizations that discovered the relationship of the Earth’s magnetic field to the science of plate tectonics.

You are proposing a land- and oceanic-based solution to geomagnetic data collection. What makes your approach to geomagnetic data collection uniquely innovative?
Geomagnetic data is more accurately collected at the Earth’s surface than from space because long-term magnetic field changes originate in the Earth’s core. Our solution can be deployed anywhere, even on the seafloor, through about 100 magnetic observatories evenly distributed across Earth. The observatories will produce sufficient data to maintain a reliable WMM at any point on Earth, with no dependency on satellite-based measurements. Our innovative approach is to make those magnetic observatories fully automated, with autonomous power and data delivery. All the data that our system produces will be readily available in near-real time.

All of the magnetic observatories are also independent from each other. When an observatory fails, the WMM can still be supported by the remaining observatories while we conduct maintenance. Our approach requires several automatic instruments — such as an AutoDIF and GyroDIF — to fully measure the magnetic field vector in a magnetic observatory.

What are your priorities as you prepare to present your Phase 3 submission to the judging panel this summer?
Over the last year, we made significant progress on the development of the automatic instruments and the first seafloor magnetic observatory. Our top priorities during Phase 3 are continuing to improve the instruments, working with key suppliers to minimize risks of change, and refining a solution to operate seafloor and remote locations.

Beyond this challenge, we may jump from isolated projects to large-scale deployment of the technology. This challenge is a great scaling opportunity for the technology we are developing!

What happens next

Over the next several months, the five teams will iterate and refine their designs and testing plans for data collection methodologies. The teams will present their final submissions to the judging panel in September.

For the latest challenge news and future team updates, subscribe to the MagQuest newsletter.