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The Internet Is Coming To An Ocean Near You

Why wait until you’re out of the water to check Snapchat? (Photo: Public domain/WikiCommons)

Imagine this: You’re deep underwater, scuba diving somewhere in the South Pacific. You snap a picture of a colorful and bulbous coral, write a cute caption, and then upload it instantly to Instagram. Or you text your best friend, “I just saw an octopus that looked exactly like you!” You’re able to share your ocean surroundings with the people on land, without leaving the comfort of your seabed.

This is not currently possible, because there’s no universal mobile telecommunications standard in the ocean, and water is a poor transmitter of radio waves. But thanks to a crack team of engineers and scientists, a deep-sea internet may be closer than you think. These organizations have figured out ways to connect small devices in deep waters with the outside world. This makes it possible for divers to upload data instantly to the web and companies to install underwater sensors that can send and receive real-time bytes of information.

Air-connected wireless networks work by sending and receiving data via radio waves. But these waves don’t travel well through salt water. Researchers have been working for years to fix this problem—although not because they are eager to enable you to Instagram a fish. Robust undersea internet could help with tsunami detection, resource exploration, and pollution monitoring, among other applications.

The ultimate goal of underwater networks, explains Tommaso Melodia, a professor of electrical engineering at Northeastern University in Boston, is to make it possible for data to be sent wirelessly from the oceans to the surface in real time. “We’re trying to develop our own underwater device prototypes,” he says. This would make it easier to get heaps of real-time data from places that usually have scant network access. The major hurdle is that the data transmitted underneath the waves is not compatible with the signals sent between smartphones and computers.

Part of a Teledyne Benthos underwater acoustic modem, which Melodia’s team used in earlier research. (Photo: Teledyne Benthos)

Melodia’s team has been working on underwater internet since 2013, but the goal of underwater wireless communication is much older. The U.S. military, has spent decades researching underwater communication (although most if its technologies are not in the public domain). But all of the current undersea networks use their own infrastructures and communicate only with themselves. They don’t use a common protocol—they’re more like a bunch of undersea intranets, like the ones used to share files locally at an office. In this current paradigm there’s no efficient way for these individual networks to transmit their data to the outside world—or even to other underwater networks.

Many deep-sea wireless data systems work in a very roundabout way: they connect with nearby buoys, which convert the data to radio waves, which is sent to satellites. The satellites then finally send this data back down to the intended computers. Instead of providing the means to upload a file instantly, these networks are slow and make the data travel thousands of miles before it can be seen by those outside it.

Melodia’s team is working to build a more unified underwater protocol. This way, the underwater data isn’t isolated; this network would instantly be able to connect to and share data with the outside world and vice versa. If the protocol is adopted, all those connected with the network would have an easy route to the outside world. For emergencies like tsunamis—where real-time data is vital—this could be huge.

Commercial companies are also making strides in underwater wireless. Submarines have already been attempting to connect to new sorts of wireless networks, but those systems are both big and costly. A company called Subnero is building its own underwater network, similar to Melodia’s project. Using sound waves instead of radio waves, because they travel more easily through water, Subnero is working to build a technology that would allow underwater vehicles like submarines and drones to talk to each other. But it’s still very slow, with data exchange rates at “one-fifth the speed of the old, noisy 56 kilobits per second modems we’re familiar with,” writes Tech in Asia.

One of Subnero’s projects, a robotic swan that can sample water quality and upload data to a server

There are also cost challenges to overcome. The current underwater wireless networks are very expensive. “You can buy an underwater modem,” says Melodia, “but it’s going to cost $15,000 and it’s going to be slow.”

That’s where Melodia hopes to be most successful: creating a more feasible, affordable way for companies and organizations to deploy underwater connected devices that can communicate efficiently with each other and other terrestrial devices. He envisions a future where data can be sent to and from devices—be they handheld diver objects or sensors at the bottom of the ocean—at relatively fast speeds.

Once underwater wireless networks are cheaper and more open, Melodia has big plans. Companies that need to monitor environments deep in the ocean could deploy cheap sensors that could easily send data to computers. Sea ranches, for example, could deploy sensors to see how fishing affects the surrounding environment. Or gas companies could even hook up small devices on their equipment to better monitor remote facilities.

That last one might have been handy during the 2006 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The problem, explains Melodia, was a faulty valve, which ultimately led to the millions of dollars of destruction. If these individual underwater parts had been more adequately monitored—that is, if the component were wirelessly tracked in real time—the spill “might have been prevented,” Melodia says.

That’s just one example, but it surely gets the idea across—while the idea of tweeting from the bottom of the ocean might cause some to cringe, an underwater internet could end up being a life-saving advance.