The Internet may soon reach into the depths of the world's oceans and relay real-time information to smartphones everywhere — about everything from drug-smuggling submarines and the location of untapped oil reserves to the approach of a deadly tsunami.
Arrays of scientific instruments already bob on ocean buoys, hitch rides on sea turtles and lay bolted to seafloors. But they communicate with each other and scientists in myriad and often inefficient ways, explained Tommaso Melodia, an electrical engineer at the University of Buffalo in New York who is leading the development of the deep-sea Internet.
For example, a tsunami sensor bolted on the seafloor uses sound waves to communicate with a surface buoy when it detects a giant wave. The buoy in turn converts the sound waves into radio waves and relays the message to a satellite, which ultimately routes the radio waves to a land-based computer. But this buoy may have no idea what any other buoy senses, and thus may send incomplete information.
"Better underwater networks make it possible to have more reliable, and even faster, communications from a tsunami detection system," Melodia told NBC News. "Instead of having a tsunami detection system that is based on a single node, or a single device, you could have multiple devices that are trying to detect an event."
In the tsunami-monitoring scenario, the array of buoys can pool their data using traditional Internet communications tools to issue a warning with more information about the potentially life-threatening event in time for people to escape to safety.
What limits this from happening now, he explained, is the difference between how networks function on land and in water. His research aims to develop a bridge between undersea communications and the traditional Internet.
"We are trying to make the networking protocols that are the basis of the Internet today compatible with the characteristics of underwater networks," Melodia said. "In this way, we would be able to access an underwater sensor or some other underwater equipment … through a smartphone or through a laptop."
He and his colleagues recently tested a prototype system in Lake Erie. They dropped two 40-pound sensors into the water and communicated with them using a standard laptop. In response to a command prompt, the sensors emitted high-pitched chirps, an indication they received the communication. The team will present results at the International Conference on Underwater Networks and Systems Nov. 11-13 in Taiwan.
Eventually, Melodia explained, a network of sensors spread throughout the world's oceans, communicating with each other and the world via the Internet, holds promise for fields ranging from surveillance to climate science and energy exploration.
For example, the network could detect passage of a submarine loaded with narcotics, and send an alert to law enforcement officials. Climate scientists could collect real-time data on how warming temperatures affect ocean circulation patterns. Meanwhile, oil and gas companies could check an entire array of seismic sensors that probe beneath the sea floor for real-time information on potential oil reserves.
John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, visit his website.