Picture, if you will, an oil rig communicating with a ship heading out to resupply it. How do the two vessels communicate? Through acoustic waves sent through ocean waters via specialised equipment. It is technology that has been around for decades. That technology is about to get a lot smarter and more useful, thanks to efforts by an American researcher and some of his university students.
The University of Buffalo's (UB) Tommaso Melodia, a professor of electrical engineering, is heading up a research project that will hopefully succeed in developing an undersea version of the Internet. He and several of his students recently ran a preliminary test of their system in Lake Erie, just south of Buffalo, New York. Using two underwater sensors and a surface-based laptop, the team was successfully able to send communications through the water that triggered sonic chirps ricocheting off nearby rocks.
Prof Melodia says his successful tests provide proof of concept for an underwater Internet. His equipment and system solves many of the problems that have prevented current acoustic audio systems from being used on a larger scale. What's more, they open undersea communications to greater commercial applications unlike anything now being used.
To date, the biggest hindrance to large-scale underwater communications lies in the different infrastructure that exists for each system. For example, the US-based NOAA uses a system of buoys and computers to keep track of any undersea conditions that would indicate activity such as a tsunami however their system is not compatible with others being used around the world.
The new technology that the UB group is working on solves that problem by acting as an electronic translator of sorts. It can tie together existing systems with what may be coming down the line in the future. The combination of underwater sensors, surface-based computers and productivity software could pave the way for a true Internet experience in the depths of the sea.
In the short term, researchers are looking at the technology as a means of better predicting and warning of tsunami activity however it goes well beyond that. The technology could be used for everything from oilfield exploration management to interdicting drug smugglers using custom-made submarines to transport drugs.
In applications where interaction with the general public is concerned, the system could be tied to satellite and land-based Internet channels for access by computers and mobile devices alike. For example, a system for tsunami detection could send text messages to alert those on the shore of coming waves.
The UB group will be presenting their research to an upcoming conference in Taiwan next month. It will be exciting to see the reaction, as well as the direction their research takes in the near future. They are likely to be only on the cusp of what could be a data communications revolution.
Our only question is this: who will be the first company to establish an undersea data centre? The race might be on a lot sooner than we think…!