Fishing for Underwater Data Solutions

Joe Stanganelli, Founder and Principal, Beacon Hill Law | 11/20/2013 | 58 comments

Joe Stanganelli
The Internet may be global, and we may call what we see in our browsers the world wide web, but about 70 percent of the world doesn't have Internet access -- the part that's covered by water.

Researchers at SUNY–Buffalo led by electrical engineering professor Tommaso Melodia are trying to change that. They have proposed an undersea Internet, which will be compatible with all land-based networks and underwater sensors.

Melodia's team is not the first to make such a proposal, but the researchers say previous proposals to enhance underwater network communications present significant diagnostic, performance, energy efficiency, and interoperability issues. The researchers recently (and successfully) floated three wireless Internet modems in Lake Erie in a test for underwater use. They presented a paper on their findings and their proposal last week at the ACM International Conference on Underwater Networks & Systems in Taiwan.

Bodies of water make wireless Internet connectivity and transmission difficult. On land, we use radio waves, antennae, and satellites. However, these radio waves work poorly underwater, where communications primarily rely on sound waves -- which can be converted to radio waves via surface buoys for back-to-land transmissions. This is where it gets tricky. Acoustic waves are much slower than radio waves, and infrastructural differences make it difficult for different acoustic-based underwater systems to share data. What's more, according to Melodia's paper, "as of today existing underwater acoustic sensor network[s]... cannot be reconfigured or reprogrammed once the modems have been deployed."

The framework his team is implementing seeks to solve these problems by transmitting data quickly between underwater sensors and landlubbing networks -- while streamlining deep-sea data transmissions by making duplicative deployments redundant. The system is compatible with both IPv4 and IPv6, and it takes advantage of wireless mesh routing. Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, Melodia's team was able to plug the modems into a Gumstix Linux board and reprogram them to communicate in a specially rewritten aquatic version of the standard Internet networking protocol, TCP/IP.

"A submerged wireless network will give us an unprecedented ability to collect and analyze data from our oceans in real time," Melodia said in a SUNY-Buffalo press release. "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."

There are yet more applications for a deep-sea Internet -- and they're not limited to getting a better signal from the cruise ship cabin. They include:

  • Monitoring water pollution and other oceanographic data
  • Detecting and aggregating seismic wave data to find oil and natural gas
  • Tracking marine life to protect it against shipping traffic and other human-caused dangers
  • Spotting undersea drug smuggling and other criminal activity

The speeds remain relatively slow and bandwidth remains low for the Melodia team's solution (video streaming certainly wouldn't be a viable option at this point), but it would work just fine for sending out basic emergency notifications to land-based devices in a reasonably timely fashion.

Melodia's next step? A faster, higher-frequency version of his deep-water modem. In addition to solving the problem of speed, it would have less impact on marine life (low-frequency sound waves, of course, being audible). "Much of our ongoing research in this field is trying to lay the basis for faster, more reliable, and secure… networks," he told Wired.

If Melodia can make his ultimate vision a reality, then it would seem -- ironically -- that the sky is the limit for broadening worldwide communications.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
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WaqasAltaf   Fishing for Underwater Data Solutions   12/17/2013 2:21:45 PM
Re: for the fish
Susan, much of the attention is in the skies these days. People talk about air traffic, air pollution and air transportation. Sea looks as if it is the thing of the past. Although man should remember that our best source of life comes from that part i.e. the seas / rivers. 
SaneIT   Fishing for Underwater Data Solutions   12/17/2013 7:15:56 AM
Re: Surfing with the Fishes
It could raise awareness but considering that these would largely be research jobs it will take years for any data to be released.  Now if we could get live cameras like the zoo panda cams then I could see a sparked interest.  We havent' had a Jacques Cousteau for some time now but when we had a leaking oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico the live camera streams were struggling to keep up with the traffic.  People are interested if you can show them something interesting and this might be a stepping stone to generating interest.
Susan Nunziata   Fishing for Underwater Data Solutions   12/16/2013 11:47:59 AM
Re: Surfing with the Fishes
@SaneIT: Well, maybe this will be a good thing; we'll put sensors on fish to monitor the access points, and those sensors will report back live images of the giant trash island in the ocean and raise awareness for everyone...

Or not.

Susan Nunziata   Fishing for Underwater Data Solutions   12/16/2013 11:37:27 AM
Re: for the fish
@Waqas: yes, there's not much media attention paid to the situation in our oceans with over-fishing, traffic and pollution. It is a serious economic and food chain matter and particularly harmful for small local fisheries around the world. 
Susan Nunziata   Fishing for Underwater Data Solutions   12/16/2013 11:32:00 AM
Re: Who owns it?
@Waqas: As with all good jokes, there is a kernal of truth to it. If it inconviences humans, anything seems to be considered fair game, unfortunately.
batye   Fishing for Underwater Data Solutions   12/12/2013 7:30:18 AM
Re: Surfing with the Fishes
yes, you are right, the question we should ask ourself would our kids in 100 years have any fish left for them... not even to eat... just to see it... scarry reality of the ocean get polluted...
SaneIT   Fishing for Underwater Data Solutions   12/9/2013 7:34:35 AM
Re: Surfing with the Fishes
They say the squeaky wheel gets the grease, well fish can't open helpdesk tickets or call in reports of trash floating near an access point.  We've got a bit of an out of sight out of mind attitude with ocean going trash.  
WaqasAltaf   Fishing for Underwater Data Solutions   12/8/2013 4:06:17 AM
Re: for the fish
Susan. So often I have heard small fishermen complain that their fish livestock is rarely found at some locations because of too much naval traffic in those waters.
WaqasAltaf   Fishing for Underwater Data Solutions   12/8/2013 4:04:22 AM
Re: Who owns it?
Susan, if they launch a protest while attacking the marine vessels then we can have an underwater world war 1. Was saying sarcastically but unfortunately if someone tries to attack men, they will use all sorts of weapons to destroy the opponent even if it means destroying their own food supply.
Susan Nunziata   Fishing for Underwater Data Solutions   12/6/2013 4:28:42 PM
Re: Surfing with the Fishes
@SaneIT: I like the way you think! 
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