Underwater telecommunication is hard, but engineers just made a huge breakthrough

acoustic frequency underwater communication 30817490 l
Dmitry Travnikov/123RF
Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have discovered a method of packing more channels onto a single acoustic frequency — massively increasing the quantity of data that can be transmitted underwater.

“Image you are somewhere underwater in the ocean — say, you are on a submarine — and still want to communicate with high speed with other submarines, or surface vessels, or somewhere on ground,” Chengzhi Shi, a PhD student in Mechanical Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, told Digital Trends. “The cell phone, Wi-Fi, and other microwave-based communication network we use everyday [don’t work] because microwaves can be easily absorbed by water. Some may think about optical waves, but light has a tiny wavelength that can be easily scattered by micro-particles and marine life in the ocean and the information gets lost.”

It’s for this reason why SONAR acoustic waves are currently the only medium used for underwater applications. The problem? That the frequency of the acoustic waves is so low that it limits communication speed to around a kilobit per second. To put that in perspective, average broadband speeds are around 50 megabits per second (50,000 times as fast).

acoustic frequency underwater communication shi setup 960
Marilyn Chung/Berkeley Lab
Marilyn Chung/Berkeley Lab

With their new setup, Berkeley researchers were able to simultaneously pack eight channels onto an acoustic frequency, rather than just the one. This means sending 8 bits at the same time, or an increase of 8x the current rate. In the words of the researchers, it’s “comparable to going from a single-lane side road to a multi-lane highway.” In their experimental setup, the investigators sent data through the air, but using frequencies very similar to the ones required to convey information in the water.

The research means a lot more than just faster Apple Music downloads for people stuck on submarines, though. The slow speed of underwater communication is one of the reasons so much of the ocean remains uncharted. Faster communications will play a vital role in subjects like seafloor mapping using unmanned vehicles and underwater robots, as well as things like offshore oil surveying and vessel detection. If this work lives up to its potential, it could represent a seismic leap for all of these areas.

“The next step is to actually put our transducer array underwater to test the communication method in the real-water environment,” Shi said. “We are planning to do so soon. Once the technique is tested underwater, we can then commercialize our work.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal PNAS.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: DIY smartphones and zip-on bike tires

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

Scientists want to bore holes through clouds using lasers from satellites

Researchers at the University of Geneva in Switzerland have proposed a plan to use ultra-hot and ultra-short laser beams to punch through cloud layers and transmit information from satellites to Earth.
Emerging Tech

Leafy greens are grown by machines at new, automated Silicon Valley farm

Farming hasn't changed too much for hundreds of years. Now a new startup called Iron Ox has opened its first automated hydroponics farm, producing a variety of leafy greens tended by machines.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix in October, from 'Mindhunter’ to ‘The Good Place’

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Emerging Tech

Ekster 3.0 lets you ask, ‘Alexa, where did I leave my wallet?’

Ekster's newest smart wallet is its best yet. It's slimmer than ever, boasts a neat card-dispensing mechanism, and will even let you know where it is, thanks to smart speaker integration.
Emerging Tech

Johns Hopkins’ lab-grown human retina could lead to big insights

Scientists from Johns Hopkins University have successfully grown human retina tissue from scratch in a lab. The work could help with the development of new therapeutics related to eye diseases.
Emerging Tech

Light-swallowing room promises Call of Duty fans the blackest of ops

What's it like to be in a room fully painted with the world's darkest material, Vantablack? The makers of one of the year's top video games teamed up with Vantablack scientists to find out.
Wearables

Skydio’s self-flying drone now has an Apple Watch app for flight prep

Skydio's clever R1 autonomous drone now has its own Apple Watch app, making flight preparations simpler than ever. The $2,000 flying machine is now also selling at its first retail outlet — Apple Stores in North America.
Emerging Tech

Are e-cigarettes safe? Here’s what the most recent science says

Ecigarettes are widely regarded and advertised as a healthier alternative to cigarettes for people who are trying to kick the smoking habit. How safe are these cigarette alternatives? We went deep into the recent scientific literature to…
Emerging Tech

Scientists created a condom that self-lubricates during sex. You’re welcome

Researchers from Boston University have invented a special coating for condoms which make them respond to bodily fluids by becoming more slippery. Here's how their new breakthrough works.
Emerging Tech

You’re so vein: Palm-based biometric system could help confirm your identity

Move over, Face ID! The next biometric security systems could rely on analyzing the unique vein patterns in your palm print. Here are some of the ways the technology could prove useful.
Emerging Tech

For only $4,950, you can get jetpack lessons from the world’s only instructor

Have you ever dreamed of flying using a jetpack? JetPack Aviation founder -- and the world's only qualified jetpack teacher -- David Mayman is now offering a day of flight instruction.
Emerging Tech

Biologists have found a hormone that could make space farming possible

Researchers have shown how space farming may be possible. By encouraging plants to excrete a certain hormone, they’ve demonstrated that crops can thrive despite challenging conditions, such as low-nutrient soil and microgravity.
Emerging Tech

Keep your holiday gift list high tech and under budget with these gadgets

Modern technology doesn't always come cheap, but there plenty of premium devices that don't carry a premium price. Whether you're looking for a streaming device or a means of capturing photos from above, our list of the best tech under $50…