Researchers at the University of Buffalo, N.Y. have developed an underwater wireless network that could one day improve tsunami detection, offshore oil and natural gas exploration, military and law enforcement applications, pollution monitoring and other similar activities.
The new system will solve one of the main problems facing underwater data transmission, says Tommaso Melodia, UB associate professor of electrical engineering and the project’s lead researcher. While land-based wireless networks rely on radio waves to transmit data via satellites and antennae, radio waves function poorly underwater and cannot be used for transmission. Instead, acoustic techniques are used by agencies such as the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to communicate. The acoustic waves are used to transmit data from sensors on the ocean floor to buoys floating on the surface of the water, which then convert the acoustic waves into radio waves to send to a satellite. The satellite then redirects the radio waves back to land-based computers.
However, says Melodia, sharing data between different systems worldwide is difficult because each system often has a different infrastructure. The new system in development by researchers at the University of Buffalo is expected to solve this problem by enabling data transmission directly from the underwater sensor networks to land-based wireless devices in real time.
“A submerged wireless network will give us an unprecedented ability to collect and analyze data from our oceans in real time,” Melodia said. “Making this information available to anyone with a smartphone or computer, especially when a tsunami or other type of disaster occurs, could help save lives.”
With funding from the National Science Foundation, Melodia and his team recently tested their underwater wireless system in Lake Erie. The team dropped two 40-pound sensors into the water and, with a simple computer command, transmitted a series of high-pitched chirps that ricocheted off a nearby concrete wall, indicating that the test worked.
While the network currently operates at a very slow pace—it transfers data at a rate similar to a modem in the 1980s, says Melodia—and is audible to both humans and marine animals, the team has plans to develop a high frequency version of the modem.
The team’s paper, “The Internet Underwater: An IP-Compatible Protocol Stack for Commercial Undersea Modems,” is available on the University of Buffalo website.