In a world in which we don’t think twice about having Wi-Fi on a plane several miles in the air, it’s easy to forget that there are still parts of the planet it’s difficult to communicate with. One of those is thousands of feet underwater on submerged submarines, which have long had issues communicating with the surface.
However, that could be about to change thanks to researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT engineers created a new underwater-to-air communication system called TARF (Translational Acoustic-RF communication) that is able to seamlessly convert sonar into radar.
“For a long time, the water surface has remained an obstacle for wireless communication,” Fadel Adib, principal investigator for MIT’s Media Lab, told Digital Trends. “Underwater communication relies on sound; in-air communications uses radio signals, like cellular or Wi-Fi — neither of which can cross the water surface. This is why it’s so difficult to find airplanes that disappear underwater, and why submarines can’t directly communicate with satellites.”
The TARF technology turns the water surface from an obstacle into a communication interface by combining sound and radio in an innovative way. It uses an underwater speaker to send data as sound. Sound travels as pressure waves, which vibrate the surface when they hit it from underwater. These vibrations can then be picked up by a sensitive radar above the surface, before being decoded to recover the sound data.
“The research paves [the] way for many applications,” Adib continued. “It would allow submarines to communicate with airplanes without surfacing. It can be used for ocean scientific exploration, where underwater sensors are deployed to monitor marine life and send their data to the surface. In the future, it can also be used to find airplanes that go missing underwater.”
At present, the technology is still in its relative infancy. The team has tested it at depths of 11.5 feet in swimming pools to demonstrate that it can communicate successfully. They have also tested it with circulation currents to mimic some of the environmental conditions it might face in the ocean. Next, the researchers plan to test TARF at greater depths and higher altitudes, along with making the technology more robust to large ocean waves.
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