Internet of Things Goes Underwater: Will It Survive or Drown?

Internet of Things Goes Underwater: Will It Survive or Drown?

By Ludovic F. Rembert, Head of Research at Privacy Canada.

The Internet of Things, or IoT, is a network of Internet-connected objects capable of collecting and sharing information.

In today’s digital-driven environment, IoT connects nearly everything including homes, offices, and cars, enabling users to remotely operate a myriad of objects and equipments, along with a number of well-known security threats. The benefits of the IoT to a wide range of industries are evident, including the potential to remotely monitor devices in real-time while ensuring safety and predicting disruptions.

However, some technical challenges remain to deploy IoT everywhere, like in underwater environments. And as the Internet of Things expands, it is tempting to think of the different ways how IoT can manifest itself underwater. This is where the Internet of Underwater Things comes in.

The Internet of Underwater Things (IoUT) is best described as a global network of smart, interconnected underwater objects that allows the monitoring of vast unexplored bodies of water. Believe it or not, but we currently know more about the surface of the moon than we know about our ocean. Roughly 71% of the planet’s surface is covered by the ocean, a sustained stretch of water that is usually divided into several major and smaller seas. Ocean temperatures determine our climate and wind patterns, and also strongly impact the rest of Earth’s life on land.

We also know that radio waves degrade in seawater over time, and that underwater acoustic communication is easily eavesdropped on and is not stealthy. While IoT has already changed the way we look at our online privacy and developers are making headway into uniform coding to ensure our safety, what can we truly expect when we go underwater?

Let’s find out.

Exciting Developments

We know the future of IoT is bright. With projections stating that up to 25 billion devices will be connected by 2021, it is easy to start wondering how your own industry might be affected. The IoUT, however, has only started to make waves very recently. Many scientists believe that light could be the key to making the underwater Internet of Things happen.

Researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, are suggesting the use of underwater optical communications by investigating the Simultaneous Lightwave Information and Power Transfer (SLIPT) configurations to transmit energy and data to underwater electronic devices.

The SLIPT system is believed to be an extremely viable option. For example, in the case of human underwater equipment inspections, SLIPT will be less prone to error than hand signals and less prone to audible confusion than ultrasound voice-based communicators. Remarkably, to date, hand signals are still a common form of communication between divers.

Researchers believe that SLIPT can help to charge devices in inaccessible areas where constant recharging is difficult and expensive or not possible, and envisages ships or boats on the surface beaming optical communications to underwater vehicles or IoT sensors on the seafloor. The lasers will connect and power underwater robots and devices simultaneously. Return data will be transmitted to the surface vessel, which then communicates via RF (radio) to land bases or data centers.

Surface buoys or drones could also be employed to inject power down to the ocean floor and, at the same time, end up receiving data. While there is still a lot of development that needs to be done before SLIPT is operational, researchers are seeing its potential.

In the United States, Sigfox U.S.A. has revealed that Gloucester Innovation has chosen its Internet of Things network to record seafloor data with simple devices that could potentially be attached to more than 300,000 Massachusetts lobster traps. Through the initiative, dubbed “LobsterNet,” Sigfox U.S.A. will supply low-power wide-area connectivity, enabling the devices to transmit oceanic acidity, depth, temperature, and other information on the ocean floor on a daily basis. Initially, Gloucester Innovation would use the data to enable fishermen to position and track lobster traps more efficiently, and ultimately aid the Blue Economy.

The Science and Technology Organization of NATO (NATO STO) is deploying an IoT solution using SPOT Trace to further their understanding of oceans around the world. Research teams from the NATO STO Maritime Research and Experimentation Center (CMRE), based in La Spezia, Italy, are integrating low-cost SPOT Trace devices into freely floating boys and allowing them to float in the Mediterranean as well as Arctic waters to track surface drift behavior. SPOT Trace tracks these ‘drifters’ movements and transmits their location data over the Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite network of Globalstar.

KAUST, located on the Red Sea coast, has been involved in another area of technical exploration for several years, including in creating some early, groundbreaking underwater data communications. In 2015, it ran a 16-QAM-OFDM transmission with a 450-nanometer laser, 4.8 gigabit per second. OFDM, or Multiplexing in the Orthogonal Frequency Division, separates single data streams into multiple channels to reduce interference.

Interestingly, for data centers, seas and oceans are becoming ever more significant. Significant portions of the world’s population are located on or near coasts, rather than inland, and we are experiencing a shift to edge-style computing that places resources closer to data sources. There is also a growing need for compute cooling, something that ocean water can provide. As a method of powering servers, even wave energy means that ocean and data are becoming entwined.

After building an undersea water-cooling data center a hundred and seventeen feet below the ocean’s surface in 2018, even Microsoft jumped into the mix. Additionally, while many believe that our communications are being carried via satellite, almost all of our intercontinental communications are actually taking place underwater, via undersea fiber-optic cables. These garden-hose-sized cables hold almost all national, public Internet traffic.

But, these developments are not part of a brand-new synergy. Aside from the eco-monitoring computer drivers, one of the most persuasive and significant reasons ocean-based computing is being extensively explored is that on the high seas, there is no rent payable and no jurisdictional ownership.
The Impact of Climate Change

Our internet connectivity and online safety is threatened by a variety of nefarious actors on a daily basis and have led to the use of a multitude of barriers from our side. One of these, and it’s one we also unfortunately can’t do very much about, is climate change.

A recent study has overlaid sea level incursion forecasts on top of U.S. vital internet infrastructure maps to reveal that climate change by 2033 would immerse around 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) of fiber cables: wires that were placed decades ago and never intended for underwater operations.

Obviously, the vast majority of internet cables that carry your everyday data fix are currently underwater, snaking the ocean floor across a massive global network that spans about 550,000 miles (885,000 km) of submarine bandwidth and are capable of upload speeds up to 2,000 Mbps, or megabits per second, at the most. The fact remains that undersea cables were specifically designed to be waterproof. However, when these submarine cables reach coastal towns, the actual cabling usually changes from waterproof wires to ones that are merely water-resistant.

Organizations began their own network infrastructure deployments at the time the commercialization of the internet got underway. Everyone adhered to their own policies and strategies and deployed based on the current needs of the time. Unfortunately despite the fact that this process happened ages ago, before today’s degree of global warming awareness, the future-proofing of the networks against an unforeseen flooding event never formed part of the planning.

Miami, Seattle, and New York are the most vulnerable cities in the U.S., but considering how the internet operates, the consequences would not be concentrated in those areas alone as all data links ferried through impacted regions may be affected. Combine this with the fact that researchers only observed American infrastructure, and the same issue may be a challenge in countries around the world, it’s obvious that we’re facing a big problem.

Some of the connectivity giants like AT&T and Verizon are already aware of the issue and are installing systems that can withstand the rising tide. But the fact remains that much of the internet technology installed didn’t need to consider the consequences of climate change, and it is of the utmost importance that all future deployments should recognize and consider the effects of it.


However, the future of the Internet of Underwater Things isn’t just doom and gloom. It is glaringly bright and the SUNRISE project shows this. This EU-funded project has already built and tested underwater robot prototypes. These robots imitate communicating marine animals. They use acoustic signals with reduced intensity, and wave frequencies that do not disturb the animals.

The SUNRISE team has already demonstrated that underwater drones are able to transmit data in real-time, as well as communicate and acknowledge simple instructions. Such drones interact with each other using a language known as “Janus” in Esperanto. The prototype drones that were granted a Mediterranean Sea test run have already assisted in finding a missing cargo container in Porto, Portugal.

Even though it’s still in its teen years, IoUT is showing a lot of potential. It is currently in the “R&D process,” and is sponsored by state-funded organizations. It won’t be too long before the connectivity and communication between the “things” become secure and the software fully developed.

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