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The unfathomable potential of the Internet of Underwater Things

Oceans occupy just over 70% of our planet and pose a great many benefits for humankind. Some of these benefits include climate regulation, medicine, food, recreation and many others, essentially fueling the incomes of several major industries. Ocean-based businesses contribute to around $500 billion to the global economy. The Internet of Underwater Things (IoUT) can be increasingly valuable for humanity’s quest to tackle environmental issues.

This technology is best described as a global network of underwater objects which are smart and interconnected that enable the monitoring and application of underwater operations and allow for the monitoring and discovery of vast unexplored bodies of water.

We have seen an increase in the uptake of the Internet of Things (IoT) within the past half-decade and we have also seen it evolve at such an exponential rate.

IoT is expected to revolutionize and enrich so many industries, the most prominent of which are healthcare and safety. Throughout the pandemic alone, it became evident that IoT became absolutely instrumental to the world’s fight against COVID-19. Not only did it help governments in so many countries manage and contain the spread of the virus, it is also becoming very prevalent in the field of social distancing technology.

The Internet of X Things, X-IoT, is beginning to gain greater traction in some major industries such as agriculture and oil and gas. In fact, investments in these technologies are expected to be worth around $6.2 trillion by 2025. IoT can now be placed underground, underwater and even in space and it holds with it the promise to provide smart marine exploration and monitoring solutions.

It is already a well-established fact that 95% of oceans remain unexplored. The mere 5% of the ocean that we have discovered, has provided us with a $500 billion contribution to the global economy. If we were to discover more, the benefits that they could pose are indeed unfathomable. IoUT through smart sensors or autonomous/remotely operated underwater vehicles could make great strides in ocean discovery.

IoUT will ensure the creation of a global network of smart underwater objects which are all connected- be it through oceans, seas, lakes and various other streams. This will ensure the exploration of various new applications that could unlock new potential for knowledge and regulation. This will be particularly useful in intruder detection, gaining a better understanding of marine animals and their behavior as well as managing/operating underwater oil rigs.

Many have wondered how IoT will work underwater. This has been a topic of concern for some time now because radio waves have been known to degrade over distance in seawater and underwater acoustic communication has not been the most efficient; it is easily eavesdropped on. Researchers at King Abudullah University of Science and Technology have been working on simultaneous lightwave information and power transfer configurations (SLIPT) which they are using to transmit data and energy to underwater tech. In fact, a breakthrough was recently announced by the researchers. They achieved a two-way transmission of data and power across 1.5 yards between a solar panel-equipped sensor and a receiver- all done underwater. The SLIPT system can allow for devices to be charged in areas which are basically inaccessible or difficult to supply continuous power to.

Seas and oceans have become very important to data centers. With edge-style computing gaining greater traction and more people moving to coastal areas, we are beginning to see a greater need for compute cooling which ocean water can easily provide.

The ocean is rent-free and is not a densely populated area so it caters to the growth in demand for cloud computing infrastructure near population centers. In fact, back in 2018, Microsoft launched an undersea water-cooling data center off the coast of the Orkney Islands in Scotland, 117 feet below the water surface. Microsoft did this with the belief that deep-sea water, which is already cooled, can be beneficial to pre-packaged data centers.

Most global public internet traffic is carried in subsea cables which are underwater and span across many oceans and continents. Interconnected underwater technology is by no means a new synergy.

The SLIPT system is beginning to be recognized as a very feasible option as it will be prone to less error in underwater equipment inspections compared to humans and less prone to audible confusions than ultrasound communicators.

The EU sponsored the SUNRISE project which addressed some of the challenges that came with the IoUT territory such as signal transmission and interference. The project was one of the first initiatives of its kind to tackle such issues. It developed and tested robots which would mimic marine animals as a way of communication through acoustic signals and wave frequencies, whilst ensuring that the testing did not interfere with the marine animals. They found that underwater drones were actually able to transmit data in real time using Janus, an Esperanto-like language.

Surface buoys and drones could actually inject power underwater and receive data simultaneously. A great deal of development still needs to be made before SLIPT can be used but it holds a lot of potential.

An initiative in the US by Sigfox U.S.A. called ‘LobsterNet’ has been using its IoT network to record seafloor data with devices that could be connected to over 300,000 lobster traps in Massachusetts. The company uses low-power wide-area connectivity which would, in turn, enable devices to transmit information on depth, ocean acidity and temperature among others on a daily basis. This data is then used by fishermen to position lobster traps accordingly.

NATO’s Science and Technology Organization (NATO STO) has been using trackers to study marine currents and gain a better understanding of surface drift and dispersion patterns to provide researchers and the industry with valuable information. NATO STO’s Italy-based Maritime Research and Experimentation Center (CMRE) has rounded up a team of researchers who have been integrating low-cost SPOT Trace devices into floating buoys in Mediterranean and Arctic waters to achieve this.

Albeit the IoUT is still in its research and development phase, there is no doubt that introducing the underwater world to the boundless potential of IoT will be a huge milestone for mankind and the global economy.