Researchers Developing 'Underwater Internet'

By Angela Moscaritolo October 16, 2013 04:50pm EST

University at Buffalo researchers are developing a deep-sea computer network that may lead to improvements in tsunami detection, offshore oil and natural gas exploration, surveillance, and pollution monitoring.

"A submerged wireless network will give us an unprecedented ability to collect and analyze data from our oceans in real time," Tommaso Melodia, UB associate professor of electrical engineering and the project's lead researcher, said in a statement. "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."

The framework Melodia and his team are developing would transmit data from existing and planned underwater sensor networks to laptops, smartphones, and other wireless devices in real time. It also would allow the many disparate underwater communication systems around the world to communicate with each other, effectively creating a deep-sea Internet.

Because land-based wireless networks rely on radio waves, which work poorly underwater, agencies like the Navy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) use sound wave-based techniques to communicate under the sea. The NOAA, for instance, relies on acoustic waves to send data from tsunami sensors on the ocean floor to surface buoys, the researchers explained. The buoys then convert acoustic waves into radio waves, which can be directed back to land-based computers.

Many other systems around the world work similarly, but it's difficult to share data between them because each system has a different infrastructure. Melodia's framework would remedy this issue.

The system promises to be able to link together buoy networks that detect tsunamis, which could lead to more reliable warnings. It could also potentially help collect oceanographic data and pollution information, encouraging researchers to work together and eliminate duplicate sensors and other equipment.

The underwater network could also potentially help law enforcement spot undersea illegal activity, such as drug smuggling through the use of makeshift submarines.

"We could even use it to monitor fish and marine mammals, and find out how to best protect them from shipping traffic and other dangers," Melodia said. "An Internet underwater has so many possibilities."

The researchers have already successfully tested the system in Lake Erie. Melodia and his students will present their research paper, "The Internet Underwater: An IP-compatible Protocol Stack for Commercial Undersea Modems," at the International Conference on Underwater Networks & Systems, which takes place from Nov. 11 - 13 in Taiwan.


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