Submarine robots 'talking' to each other in a language related to that of whales and dolphins are being cast to play major roles in the up-and-coming 'Internet of Underwater Things'. A European research project is pioneering the technology in an ambitious bid to explore, monitor and protect the world's waterways.
As the internet evolves into the ‘Internet of Things’, or ‘IoT’ – a network of smart devices connecting everything from home appliances to shipping containers – this web of wireless signals has yet to infiltrate the underwater world.
Such an IoT, sensing and transmitting data through water, would help protect the oceans and lakes that cover nearly three quarters of our planet’s surface and support the life of nearly half of its species. An underwater IoT would help manage these vital marine environments by monitoring offshore oil and gas pipelines, scouring the seabed for pollutants, surveying shipwrecks, observing marine animals and their habitats, and even detecting early signs of tsunamis or seismic events.
However, scientists are facing a whole new set of challenges in bringing the IoT concept into the ocean, where conditions are very different from those on land.
Sounding out the right waves
“We can’t use radio waves, for example, because they will only carry signals for a few metres in a submarine environment,” explains Chiara Petrioli, a professor in computer science at the University of Rome La Sapienza.
Neither would optical waves be a feasible option for wireless transmission of signals between devices in the ocean, where light can only travel short distances – under highly variable conditions such as the time of day, turbulence and so on.
Using acoustic waves – or sound – is the way to go, according to Petrioli, who coordinates a project called SUNRISE. Funded by the European Union under the Seventh Framework Programme, the project is aimed at building an underwater communication system based on acoustic waves, which can travel tens of kilometres under water.
Creating smart submarines
While acoustic technology may be the best candidate for the job, there are still many hurdles to overcome. For example, the speed of sound in water is very slow, currently enabling bit rates of only 10 kilobits per second. Signal noise – from ships, offshore drilling, marine life and so on – is another challenge.
To ‘outsmart’ these natural and manmade obstacles, Petrioli’s team in Italy, along with partners from across Europe and the USA, have dived into the task of developing intelligent submarine robotics technologies. Part of the solution is to create multi-vendor underwater platforms, where several types of devices can self-organise to execute tasks quickly, efficiently and reliably.
The goal is to have shoals of submarine drones exchanging information using sound signals, similar to the way marine animals such as whales and dolphins communicate and cooperate. To this end, Petrioli’s research group has developed new software and hardware solutions and a new framework for integrating acoustic modems, nodes, sensors and drones.
While mimicking the communication of marine mammals, the technology relies on low-power signals and wave frequencies very unlikely to interfere with these animals or other marine life, according to Petrioli.
Towards a deeper understanding
The SUNRISE team has tested prototypes of the system at various locations in Mediterranean Sea, demonstrating that it can, for instance, help find a lost container in a port. They have shown that the mini-submarines can respond to simple directions and transmit data in real-time to an onshore command centre. Working mostly autonomously, the drones can be configured to collect and transmit various types of information, depending on the targeted application.
Launched in 2013, the project still has a long way to go to live up to its promise of enabling safe and economical monitoring and control of underwater areas, from the discovery of underwater volcanoes to search and rescue operations.
In the next stage, the team is looking to bring in new partners and set up test centres off the coast of the USA, in Dutch lakes, and in the Black Sea in Turkey. Going global, of course, is the be-all and end-all of the ‘Internet of Underwater Things’ and of our shared future.
“This technology will give us a much deeper understanding of our world. And that’s an essential element for the future of humanity,” says Petrioli.
– By Lillian Sando