Coming to an Ocean Near You: Taking Wifi to New Depths

For thousands of years, nets have been actively used in all of the major bodies of water around the world. However, so far, the world’s largest net—the Internet—has been almost completely absent from the underwater world.

Internet users can log on from land and air, but water-logged logins are as rare as Loch Ness Monster sightings. While Wi-Fi radio wave signals have helped to make the Internet a ubiquitous presence on dry land, regular Wi-Fi doesn’t work underwater.

Lifesaving Potential

This situation may change if research being conducted by the University at Buffalo pays off and becomes more widely adopted. A team of researchers are working to develop a deep-sea Internet that might someday be used for a wide range of practical applications.

Tommaso Melodia, the UB associate professor of electrical engineering in charge of the project says, “A submerged wireless network will give us an unprecedented ability to collect and analyze data from our oceans in real time.”

UBPhoto by Douglas Levere (source)

As an example, Melodia explains that information gathered from beneath the sea and transmitted via an Internet connection could warn anyone with a smartphone about an approaching tsunami or other kind of natural disaster, possibly saving lives.

Overcoming the Obstacles

The team had to abandon the use of radio waves to develop a prototype underwater Wi-Fi network and instead turn to sound waves. In a historical perspective, it’s an interesting reversal of events. Using sound waves underwater has a long history; in fact, sonar—the underwater locating system that uses sound waves—was being developed in 1912. It wasn’t until the 1930s that radio waves were used for location in the first radar systems.

Organizations like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Navy already use sound waves to communicate underwater. NOAA, for example, uses sensors on the sea floor to detect tsunamis. These sensors use sound waves to send information to buoys floating on the surface of the ocean. The buoys then transmit the data to satellites that send the information to computers on land.

This system, and others like it, all have their proprietary means of communication. If communication could be standardized to the Internet protocol that the World Wide Web uses, it would be far easier for users around the world to “plug into” this information and make good use of it.

UB 2Photo by Douglas Levere (source)

Lake Erie Testing

To prove the new system’s viability, Melodia and his team tested it in Lake Erie, not far from the Buffalo campus. They dropped two 40-pound sensors into the lake. Using a laptop, they sent commands down to the sensors, and within seconds, they received the response they were hoping for. You can check out photos of the operation in the UB photo database.

Not only could the system help improve tsunami warnings around the world, but also, it could be used to study pollution, detect sophisticated smuggling operations that are now using submarines, monitor aquatic life, protect shipping and assist in underwater mining exploration. The potential applications are limitless.

While the system seems to hold a lot of promise, whether or not the world is ready for monster squid selfies may be questionable.

Mira Yarden, who works with, enjoys working abroad wherever there is wifi. From high mountaintops to sandy beaches, Mira has a laptop and is hard at work. Perhaps she’ll soon be chartering the ocean with her laptop in tow…with an internet connection! Follow Mira on Twitter.