Imagine SCUBA-diving in the middle of the ocean, on a deep-sea search-and-rescue mission, and being able to video conference with your above-water colleagues aboard a nearby ship, to whom you are transmitting video of your search while receiving their instructions, all in real-time.
As you're swimming over 1,000 feet deep in the water, you feel a vibration. It's your (dreadfully obsolete) iPhone 17h. You press a button, have a brief conversation and tell your spouse that you'll probably be late for dinner. Just as you're hanging up, a robot controlled via WiFi who has joined you on your mission swims up to you and hands you an object it just found by using sound waves; it is the black box belonging to the crashed plane that you've been looking for.
Nope, this is not an April Fools' joke. A few years ago this vision of the future was nowhere near possible; underwater Internet access wasn't really a thing. What subaquatic networking equipment there was performed poorly, used too much energy and (perhaps worst of all) had interoperability problems -- making transmissions between land and sea difficult if not impossible (and thereby making it difficult to remotely diagnose and fix technical problems on already deployed subaquatic sensors).
Then, Tommaso Melodia came along. Melodia, then an electrical engineering professor at SUNY-Buffalo, began leading a research team in 2013 in the hopes of putting the Internet underwater -- what the university called "a deep-sea Internet."
We're not talking about the standard massive underwater cables that connect continents. Melodia's plan was for a wireless Internet accessible throughout oceans, lakes and other bodies of water. As tall an order as the idea sounds -- more than 70% of the Earth is covered in water, after all -- Melodia's team was able to demonstrate the feasibility of the plan using technology based upon wireless mesh networking.
The researchers reprogrammed a set of Teledyne Benthos wireless acoustic Internet modems to communicate underwater with an "aquatic version" of TCP/IP that they had specially developed so as to effectively convert land-based radio waves (which do not perform well underwater) into subaquatic-friendly sound waves, and vice versa. This allowed more streamlined communication with above-water networking equipment than was before possible with earlier undersea acoustic sensors.
Melodia's first successful deployment of his team's modems in Lake Erie led to further successes. Last year, Melodia's research led to files being successfully uploaded to underwater network equipment for the first time. His team also sent the first-ever (okay, well, second-ever) Tweet from underwater.
Now, Melodia's research has progressed substantially, continuing at a new institution -- Northeastern University in Boston -- to where Melodia (and his lab, now known as the Wireless Networks and Embedded Systems ["WiNES"] Laboratory) moved this past August. What makes Melodia's research especially exciting now is the speed with which it is progressing. The National Science Foundation, which has previously supported Melodia's deep-sea Internet work, recently granted Melodia and his WiNES Lab an additional $300,000 to expand upon their research, with the goal of transmitting live video streams to, from and between underwater sensors, in real-time.
This ambitious project represents a huge step forward for Melodia's research because of the very slow speed at which underwater sound waves travel compared to above-ground radio waves. Melodia's first deployment in 2013 saw data transfer speeds no faster than a few kilobytes per second -- a throwback to the dialup modems of the 1980s and early 1990s.
Real-time video, of course, represents some of the very most demanding data transfer needs in terms of latency and reliability. This quest to achieve underwater networking perfection -- or, at least, to make a deep-sea Internet as fast and reliable as its above-ground counterpart -- will, according to Melodia, enable new applications and industries that will aid in undersea search missions, track and protect marine life, monitor water pollution levels, identify smuggling activity, detect and report seismic activity and impending natural disasters and overall make the world a better place by way of broad deployment of high-speed underwater networking sensors -- and all of the benefits that those sensors can bring.
Melodia's vision, in short, is not just a faster deep-sea network, but an underwater version of the Internet of Things -- one that is equally compatible with surface IoT. And it doesn't end there, broader IoT deployments include sensors detecting undersea activity, and enhanced networking communication on and below bodies of water via specially enhanced underwater modems and cutting-edge networking technologies.
These advancements, in turn, could transform existing business models and make new ones possible, particularly as providers wring their hands over IoT latency issues, and are experimenting with wireless mesh and other WiFi-based options as possible solutions. As service providers have trouble solving the problem on land, Melodia is perhaps solving the most difficult aspect of the problem of all -- doing it underwater relying on (much slower) sound waves.
— Joe Stanganelli, Freelance Contributor, special to The New IP