• 10.17.13

The Internet’s Next Frontier Is The Deep Sea

Researchers are creating the beginnings of an underwater wireless network, which could assist in everything from tsunami warnings to government surveillance.

The Internet’s Next Frontier Is The Deep Sea
[Image via Shutterstock]

The Internet spans the world–but only the world according to landlubbers.


Researchers at the University of Buffalo in New York are testing schemes for a “deep sea Internet” that could have wide-ranging applications from environmental monitoring and tsunami warnings to oil extraction and government surveillance operations.

“A submerged wireless network will give us an unprecedented ability to collect and analyze data from our oceans in real time,” said Tommaso Melodia, UB associate professor of electrical engineering and the project’s lead researcher, in a news release.

Wireless communication on land relies on radio waves transmitted by satellites and antennas, but radio doesn’t transmit well in the deep sea. Most underwater machines communicate with sound, which is then converted once it reaches the surface to be transmitted to our smartphones and laptops. This whole process makes sharing data difficult, especially in real-time, because everyone uses different protocols to communicate with the underwater sensors, the paper explains. Instead, the new framework would create a standardized way to beam data from an underwater sensor to any computer around the world.

Ph.D. students in Melodia’s lab tested the system at Lake Erie this fall by dropping two heavy sensors into the water and commanding them from a laptop to make high-pitched chirps.

Like on land, a deep sea Internet would improve how we communicate with improved networks of underwater sensors, the engineers note. Buoys that detect tsunamis could work together to transmit earlier and faster warnings, for example. Law enforcement could do a better job tracking drug smugglers and the energy industry could more efficiently scout for oil and gas.

It would take plenty of international coordination to standardize a new underwater Internet protocol, but there are standard-setting organizations to take on this task, much like the creation of a common communications standard for the low-power sensors that make up the growing “Internet of Things.”

The researchers will present the paper at ACM’s International Conference on Underwater Networks & Systems in Taiwan this November.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.