By Henry Steck
Technology & Innovation Writer
A group of 40 American and European scientists are close to ‘cutting the cable’ on underwater data. Collectively known as project ‘Sunrise’, these researchers have made tremendous leaps towards providing better internet connection for underwater research by creating drones.
The world’s oceans represent one of humanity’s great unexplored frontiers. While oceans cover around 70 percent of the earth’s surface, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has estimated that 95 percent of the world’s oceans remain unexplored. Humans have explored most of what is 170 meters (556 feet) below the waves, but the average depth of oceans worldwide is 4000 meters (13,120 feet). More humans have travelled to the moon than have been to the bottom of the Mariana trench, the deepest known place on earth.
Communication is extremely difficult under the ocean. Wi-Fi and GPS are almost non-existent. But for scientists attempting to do underwater research, connectivity to their instruments and other robots is paramount. To achieve even incredibly slow speeds of just bytes per minute, submarines and other devices often have to be attached by long copper or fiber optic cables. These huge cables often become tangled or snagged, pulling the devices they connect to the depths. Regular Wi-Fi speeds above ground run much faster at speeds averaging 1 to 5 megabits per second (Mbps). Weather fluctuations and temperature differences underwater also make work very difficult for researchers utilizing any electronic devices.
The Sunrise Project has developed autonomous submarines, experimenting with a combination of acoustic modems, which use soundwaves to transmit information and optical modems, which send info through beams of infrared light, to improve data transmission speed and capacity. This combination will allow Sunrise’s vehicles to operate effectively underwater in both long-range and short-range situations.
“We call it the internet of underwater things,” said Chiara Petrioli to Wired Magazine, a professor of computer science at University of Rome La Sapienza. “What we wanted to do is not only communicate underwater, but also take the first steps to develop low-cost actuating and sensing technologies that can be interconnected with each other and can complete smart complex tasks.”
The torpedo-shaped drones are sent down in packs, splitting up to search for data. They then reconvene, transmitting their findings back up to the surface through high speed modems. The drones cost around €100,000 each, and are compact enough to be launched by one person.
“Marine industry stakeholders will collaborate to create a new data value chain that builds on low-cost drones and advanced data analytics to seamlessly connect surveyors, marine analysts and authorities.” stated director of the University of Southampton’s IT Innovation Center, Michael Boniface, a lead partner in the Sunrise project.
The new drones are also bound to have an impact on risk management in the marine industry. Jonathan Williams, CEO of Marine Southeast commented: “This revolutionary technology will create opportunity to address many challenges faced by industry operating in the blue economy. From port operations to marine aquaculture and offshore wind farms, (Sunrise) provides (the) industry with ways to transform risks management for maintenance, crisis and regulatory compliance.”
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, November 8th print edition.
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