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Researchers work to develop wireless Internet underwater

Ashley Hirtzel / Innovation Trail
The UB research team working on the Internet underwater.

University at Buffaloresearchers are developing an underwater internet system. The wireless network aims to improve the detection of tsunamis and could potentially save lives. The deep-sea system integrates acoustic underwater networks with the Internet.

A network of acoustic sensors placed on the ocean floor collects data. That information is then sent up to a buoy on the surface, where it’s converted into radio waves.

Hovannes Kulhandjian is one of PhD students working on the project at UB. He said satellites can pick up the data in those radio waves and then send them directly to people’s personal computers or cell phones for free.

“Since we have this system someone with a cell phone can receive the message that you have to run, evacuate this place. So, that could save lives,” Kulhandjian said.

UB associate professor Tomasso Melodiais spearheading the project. He said other systems that are similar have a small capacity for transferring data. He explains that it’s like using dial-up internet in the water.

The underwater sensors are also collecting information that can be useful for surveillance.

“I was just reading in a book that a lot of the illegal drug smuggling that happens in North America comes from submarines in the Pacific Ocean. So, you could use this technology to detect underwater submarines,” Melodia said.

Melodia said eventually, the military will be able to use this technology to keep waterways safe. He said the Internet underwater is different from wireless networks used on land, because it does not absorb frequency waves created in water. 

“Since World War II people have been using acoustic waves to communicate underwater, and what we are trying to do at UB is develop a better, faster, more reliable underwater network based on acoustic communications,” Melodia said.

The underwater application could also provide useful information to scuba divers, marine biologists, or to the energy industry searching for oil and gas. Melodia said it has many possibilities.

“Other applications for it are monitoring the ocean to try and understand how the underwater currents in the ocean or in the Great Lakes affect pollution. You could monitor the composition of water in different areas and how those change over time, and how currents contribute to weather and climate change,” said Melodia.

The Internet underwater research team is continuing to test the system in their UB research lab. They’re getting ready to present it at a conference in Taiwan in November.

“We had tests throughout the summer in Lake LaSalle at UB, and then recently we tested the technology in Lake Erie,” Melodia said.

Melodia said he and his team will continue to make the system faster and more reliable in an emergency situation.

Ashley is a Buffalo native, and is in her second stint as reporter at WBFO. During her first tenure at the station, Ashley covered a variety of issues in the western New York region and earned an Associated Press award for team coverage on “Same Sex Marriage in New York.” Ashley has also worked as an anchor/reporter at WBEN in Buffalo and WBTA in Batavia.