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Underwater web

The University at Buffalo, in the New York state, has announced that its researchers are working on a project to develop technologies that would allow for the creation of a deep-sea internet infrastructure.

The University says that the technological breakthrough could lead to improvements in oil and gas exploration, surveillance, pollution monitoring, tsunami detection, and other activities.

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

“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.”

Mr Melodia and his students will present a paper titled ‘The Internet Underwater: An IP-compatible Protocol Stack for Commercial Undersea Modems’ at the 8th annual International Conference on Underwater Networks & Systems. Hosted by the Association for Computing Machinery, the conference runs November 11-13 in Taiwan.

Land-based wireless networks rely on radio waves that transmit data via satellites and antennas. However, radio waves work poorly underwater, so the project will rely on techniques based on the use of sound waves to communicate underwater.

The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) already uses acoustic waves to send data from tsunami sensors on the sea floor to surface buoys. The buoys convert the acoustic waves into radio waves to send the data to a satellite, which then redirects the radio waves back to land-based computers.

Many systems worldwide employ this paradigm, says Mr Melodia, but sharing data between them is difficult because each system often has a different infrastructure. Aiming to solve that problem, the framework that UB is developing would transmit data from underwater sensor networks to laptops, smartphones and other wireless devices in real time.

Mr Melodia tested the system recently in Lake Erie, a few miles south of downtown Buffalo.

Hovannes Kulhandjian and Zahed Hossain, who are both doctoral candidates in his lab, dropped two 40-pound sensors into the water. Kulhandjian typed a command into a laptop. Seconds later, a series of high-pitched chirps ricocheted off a nearby concrete wall, an indication that the test worked.

The project is funded by the National Science Foundation in the US.

Deep-sea internet could have many applications, including linking together buoy networks that detect tsunamis. In these situations, it could deliver a more reliable warning thereby increasing the odds that coastal residents can evacuate, Mr Melodia said. It may also help collect oceanographic data and monitor pollution.

There are also military and law enforcement applications. For example, drug smugglers have recently deployed makeshift submarines to clandestinely ferry narcotics long distances underwater. An improved, more robust underwater sensor network could help spot these vessels.

The framework could also be useful to the energy industry, which typically relies on seismic waves to search for underwater oil and natural gas. Industry’s efforts could be aided by network of interconnected devices working together, the lead researcher said.

"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," Mr Melodia said.

"An internet underwater has so many possibilities."

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