Facebook Dive: Engineers Create First Ever ‘Underwater WiFi’ System

THUWAL, Saudi Arabia — Nature shows and documentaries like “Planet Earth” from the BBC or “Our Planet” on Netflix show just how much video recording technologies have improved over the years. Filmmakers have done their best to bring viewers as close to the action as possible. But they may just be scratching the surface of what could come. A team of engineers and computer scientists from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology boast new technology that will give people a live experience of the ocean depths — thanks to underwater WiFi. 

The research team built a device called “Aqua-fi,” which acts like an WiFi booster so deep-sea divers have internet access while underwater. This will allow divers to share live feed from their position underwater to the surface. 

Underwater WiFi "Aqua-Fi"
Aqua-Fi would use radio waves to send data from a diver’s smart phone to a “gateway” device attached to their gear, which would send the data via a light beam to a computer at the surface that is connected to the internet via satellite. (Image © 2020 KAUST; Xavier Pita)

“People from both academia and industry want to monitor and explore underwater environments in detail,” explains first author Basem Shihada, an associate professor of computer science, in a university release. He says that underwater internet access will also allow for easier communication between divers and the teams on the boats.

Guided by the light

There are generally three tools people use for underwater communication: radio signals, acoustic signals or communication with visible light. All three of these communication modalities have their drawbacks. The research team decided, however, to build their system using visible light signals.

Light signals travel at an extraordinarily fast rate, allowing for quick communication of lots of data. Still, transmitters and receivers of the signals need to be perfectly aligned for this form of communication to work.

The Aqua-Fi system uses two computers, a light source and a light detector. The first computer converts a live video feed into binary (a code of ones and zeroes) which the light source transmits by turning on and off really quickly. The light detector reads the incoming signals like it’s reading morse code — only with the number coding instead of dots and dashes. The second computer converts the detected light signals back into a video feed.

In a recent experiment the research team demonstrated the capabilities of their system using two types of light sources: LEDs and lasers. The LEDs don’t require too much power, but they can only work to a depth of about 10 meters. Lasers work in depths of 20 meters and greater. In their experiment in static water, the underwater WiFi system had a max transfer speed of 2.11 megabytes per second and an average delay of 1 millisecond.

“This is the first time anyone has used the internet underwater completely wirelessly,” says Shihada.

When will Aqua-Fi be available everywhere?

The research team still has a good amount of work ahead of them before their product is commercially available. “We hope to improve the link quality and the transmission range with faster electronic components,” explains Shihada.

Also, their experiment only tested the underwater WiFi system in non-moving water. Since the system requires precise alignment of the transmitter and receiver, it might take some work to get the system working in moving water. The team is considering using a spherical receiver since it can capture light signals from all angles.

“We have created a relatively cheap and flexible way to connect underwater environments to the global internet. We hope that one day, Aqua-Fi will be as widely used underwater as WiFi is above water.” Shihada concludes.

The study is published in IEEE.

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