Underwater Internet to Make Ocean More Wi-Fi Friendly

Underwater Wi-Fi could monitor drug trafficking and predict tsunamis.

ByABC News
October 16, 2013, 11:31 AM

Oct. 16, 2013— -- If there were a modern reboot of "The Little Mermaid," Ariel would probably tell Sebastian that living under the sea was a pain because of the shoddy Wi-Fi connection. But a research team at the University of Buffalo in New York might be able to grant Ariel's wish of a better underwater Internet.

Tommaso Melodia, the director of the Wireless Networks and Embedded Systems Lab at the university, said that his research wasn't so much to create a new Internet below the sea but to make sensors and other underwater electronics more accessible to land-based devices, such as laptops and mobile phones. "We're looking to make underwater networks a part of the Internet, so you can access them without specialized equipment or software," he told ABC News.

In addition to monitoring pollution levels or reading geological data to better predict tsunamis, Melodia believes law enforcement agencies would find an underwater Internet useful as well. "I've been reading ... that there's a lot of drug trafficking from South America to North America via submarine," he said. "You could create networks of devices that can detect this type of activity."

Making the ocean Internet-friendly requires more than simply taking a router below sea level, since conventional radio waves that transmit data on land travel poorly underwater. But as submarine navigation systems that use sonar can attest, acoustic waves travel well underwater. Melodia and his students recently performed a test run off Lake Erie, dropping 40-pound sensors into the lake and a relay buoy on the lake's surface.

"The Wi-Fi radio signal transmits to the buoy, which converts it into acoustic waves for the underwater sensors," said Hovannes Kulhandjian, a graduate student working with Melodia. "It's also bidirectional. Basically, you talk to them and they talk to you."

Despite a few technical glitches, the tests ran smoothly. "There is a steel company next to the lake, so a lot of the acoustics were reverberating off the walls of the factory," said Kulhandjian. "But it wasn't a major problem," he said, adding that a single sensor and buoy system has an effective radius of about 1 mile.

Though the tests were conducted in Lake Erie, Kulhandjian said that they should work effectively in saltwater too. "All of the electronics are inside this sphere and vacuum sealed," he said. "They're behind a half inch thick barrier, so no water comes through."

So at least whenever Sebastian gathers up the sea critter band to try to convince Ariel to stay underwater, other Disney creatures won't have buffering problems when the concert is livestreamed. (Disney is the parent company of ABC News.)