Deep-Sea Internet Could Send Tsunami Warnings to Smartphones

Electrical Engineering Graduate Students Hovannes Kulhandjian and Zahed Hossain conduct a wireless network field test aboard University of Buffalo professor Tommaso Melodia’s floating WINES Research Lab [photo, above].

Ocean sensors designed to detect tsunamis, spot drug-running submarines and monitor pollution could soon transmit their warnings to mobile devices through a deep-sea version of the Internet. The U.S. National Science Foundation is backing an effort to make a shared standard for wireless underwater communication that can link far-flung networks of existing ocean sensors.

The U.S. Navy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) already have huge networks of ocean sensors that use sound waves rather than radio waves for effective underwater communication. A shared standard for such undersea wireless networks could make way for the transmission of data across existing and future networks to anyone carrying a laptop, tablet or smartphone—allowing both scientists and ordinary people to see warnings and updated information in real-time.

"A submerged wireless network will give us an unprecedented ability to collect and analyze data from our oceans in real time," said Tommaso Melodia, an electrical engineer at the University of Buffalo in New York, in a press release. "Making this information available to anyone with a smartphone or computer, especially when a tsunami or other type of disaster occurs, could help save lives."

For instance, NOAA currently operates a network of tsunami sensors that use acoustic waves to transmit information about possible quakes to surface buoys. The floating buoys can convert the information into radio waves for transmission to satellites that bounce the data across the world.

But a shared standard for underwater communication could allow NOAA's tsunami sensors to talk with other tsunami sensors and compile much more comprehensive information for warning coastal residents and ships about the threat from incoming waves.

An undersea Internet would also open the door for scientists to better collaborate on monitoring ocean life and environmental changes. The oil and natural gas industry could build a more interconnected network for surveying the ocean for underwater resources.

"We are trying to make the networking protocols that are the basis of the Internet today compatible with the characteristics of underwater networks," Melodia told NBC News.

The University of Buffalo team recently held underwater tests of their system in Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes at the U.S.-Canada border. Researchers dropped two 18-kilogram sensors into the water and confirmed that they were able to send and receive signals from the devices via a laptop.

There is no word yet on when the shared standard might end up tying together the networks of underwater sensors scattered across the world. The University of Buffalo researchers plan to take their next step by presenting their work at the International Conference on Underwater Networks and Systems scheduled to be held in Taiwan from 11-13 November.

Photo: Douglas Levere

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