This is a guest blog post written by journalist and science writer Marco Merola, SUNRISE Press manager on behalf of the University of Rome “La Sapienza”
Connecting the oceans appears to be madness, a project from “the twilight zone.” However, similar thoughts were circulating when mankind, years ago, decided to send a probe on Mars. And there is still somebody who thinks it is crazy that some governments are talking about going back to the Moon, now that transmissions from our satellite can count on communication standards remarkably more sophisticated and efficient than those available in 1969.
There is, however, a fundamental difference between space exploration and the exploration of the seas: Despite centuries of navigations on its surface, the ocean remains largely an uncharted “territory.” We are still unaware of most of its “rules,” of the mechanisms governing the changes of its environmental parameters (water salinity, streams, etc.). Ocean-floor bathymetry and mapping is only partially available. It is quite peculiar that in 2014 we have accurate pictures of the “red planet” but we still know little about how the bottom of the Mariana Trench looks like.
The reason is that Oceans are still particularly hostile environments for humanity and its “modern” needs.
SUNRISE (a project funded by the European Union with the VII Framework Programme) has embraced the technological challenge of fundamentally understanding how underwater signaling works, how to favor their propagation, what prevents their correct transmission, how to obviate the natural obstacles of the submarine environment. Only after answering these fundamental questions, will we be able to start connecting the underwater world to the Internet.
Techniques that are effective above surface, such as radio waves, are no longer a viable solution (if not at negligible distances). The technological key to open up the door to oceans communication is thus… the sound. In other words, acoustic modems can be used to communicate, mimicking the communication among marine mammals like dolphins and whales. For this reason, the SUNRISE partners are at work to determine, both in labs and at sea, if and how networks made up of acoustic modems can be deployed and used in support of underwater applications, eventually comprising teams of mobile robots operating in both deep and shallow waters.
SUNRISE is thus paving the way for the Internet of Underwater Things, that will be the key enabler for building marine applications where direct human intervention is not required. This means that many sub-surface activities (especially those that are dangerous, such as monitoring a seismic area, or retrieving lost cargos at high depths) will be performed autonomously in the future by underwater robots and devices.
The challenges to turn this vision into reality are quite significant. Current underwater technology, for instance, allows bit rates of just a few kilo bits per second, i.e., even lower than those of commercial modems for interconnecting our PCs in the 80s (56Kbps). The speed of sound underwater (1500m/s) is some 200,000 times slower than that of a radio wave in the air. And let us not forget that the seas are already used by humans: The noise from ships and from offshore drilling, for instance, have to be considered when designing communication network and systems.
This is why, at this time, high-speed underwater networking is only the final destination of an exploration journey still in its early stages, with the SUNRISE team at its forefront. From its inception in 2013, SUNRISE has produced already tangible progress, paving the way, today, for the future of underwater communication and networking.
And since this future is our future, the future of mankind, comments and advice are welcome.
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